Do we have a power to shape the history or does the history have its own will and uses us as an  instrument? Henrik Ibsen’s great closet drama “Emperor and Galilean” which he subtitles “A World-Historical Play” forces us to look for the answer just when we are going through  such  incredibly historical times of 21st century in which most of us chose to be or maybe forced to be silent and watch the wars of religions that were started ironically in the name of democracy and so-called war on terrorism.

Julian Apostate(Andrew Scott) in Emperor and Galilean at National Theatre,Olivier.

National Theatre responsibly challenges audiences, most of who have no time to look back at history and see its great repetitions, in “Emperor and Galilean” picturing extremely crucial time of the world history in Ibsen’s deepest lines, exactly when it is supposed to. Ben Power’s new version of the play doesn’t let a dust of confusion enter any audience’s mind but forces to absorb passion of the characters who die  and kill for their believes and thoughts on the stage of Olivier where cinematography meets theatre for  three and a half hours.

Modern Drama’s father Ibsen captures turning point of the Roman Empire and of the world history in which Julian Apostate, the last Roman Emperor and Julian the philosopher, tries to keep paganism alive while Christianity is in its birth contractions from Greece to Persia between 351 and 363.

Young Julian (Andrew Scott), whose ill-minded uncle Constantius (Nabil Shaban)killed his parents to become Emperor of Roman Empire,;who has oppressed him and his half brother Gallus(Laurence Spellman) for years, longs to go to Athens with students to become philosopher, to become Second Alexander just like his mother dreamt a night before she had given birth to Julian.His three  friends, Agathon (James AcArdle)-Gregory(Jamie Ballard)-Peter(John Hefferman) ,who Julian grew up with as a Christian, don’t want to go to Athens with him.

While Julian searches the truth and peace in life Gallus looks for prophecy. Gallus becomes Caesar of the East just when he points his sword to his ill uncle whose biggest fear to lose his power.The old emperor redirects Gallus’ anger to King Sapor by promising him his beautiful sister Helena (Genevieve O’Reilly) as a reward if he returns with a victory. While he goes to war leaving his fiancé behind Julian goes to Athens with his three friends to find the truth and peace after telling his uncle that he is travelling to Pergamon.

Maximus(Ian McDiarmid) in Emperor Galilean at National Theatre,Olivier.

However Julian can’t find the truth in Athens. He goes to Ephesus with Peter and Agathon to find philosopher Maximus (Ian McDiarmid) who tells him about the third kingdom. When Julian asks what the third kingdom is, Maximus explains: “The first kingdom is the kingdom born of sin, in the garden, on the tree of knowledge. The second is the kingdom born of death, on the hill, on the tree of the cross. The third will be built on the tree of knowledge and the tree of the cross together.It will unite the two and bring harmony to everything.”

Just when Julian is having a mystic night with Maximus and hears voices of Chain and Judas Iscariot whom he asks about his existence and life and fate Ursulus(Richard Durden) comes to Ephesus to hail him Caesar following Gallus’ death.  Emperor gives Helena to Caesar Julian and sends him a war to Gaul.

From that point on we see how Julian becomes an oppressive Emperor after his uncle’s death and dictates his thoughts to abolish Christianity. He even tortures his best friend Gregory and burns his small church. Julian doesn’t even feel sad when his wife  Helena, who was sickly in love with Christ, dies.

In the end of the play Agathon who sees himself as soldier of Christ stabs his best friend Julian leaving the empire with no leader in a war with Persians. Julian dies in the arms of his loyal friend Peter who says to Julian: “You were a glorious, fragile instrument of the Lord.”

Maximus says: “The third kingdom will come, humanity will reclaim its lost inheritance. Then songs will be sung to you, incense will be burnt. And then you will be remembered.”And the curtains close.

Neither any theatre nor any director has attempted to stage Emperor and Galilean in England since its world premiere in Leipzig in 1896.However National Theatre brought the forgotten epic play of Ibsen to Olivier’s lights just when we were all thirsty for truth like Julian Apostate.The play that is directed by Jonathan Kent will be on at National Theatre until 10 August.

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