Playwright Ben Power has demonstrated, notably in his reworking of Faust and Paradise Lost, the sort of intellectual rigour that gives the brain cells a bracing workout in the theatre. He’s conflated Ibsen’s meditation on the battle for souls - and bodies - between Christianity and Paganism, between free will and determinism, into three-and-a-half manageable hours. And he’s found his soul-mates in director Jonathan Kent and designer Paul Brown.
The story centres on Julian, the Byzantine Emperor called Julian the Apostate, because he made it his mission to reinstate the old gods in the fourth-century Christian Byzantine Empire. The play’s huge canvas follows him across Asia and Europe, from his teenage years, living precariously in Christian Constantinople where his Uncle Constantius (magnificently paranoiac and sardonic Nabil Shaban) rules by fear, to his own brief (361-363 AD) and according to Ibsen, bloody reign.
History may have been kinder to Julian than Ibsen, who was, by all accounts, something of a philosopher and intellectual. Here Andrew Scott’s Julian moves from febrile youth to Emperor every bit as ruthless as Uncle Constantius. But extremism is the norm and the dangerous exhilaration of revolution is in the air across the known world, from the opening of the play, as young Julian rejects his childhood friends and their shared ardent Christian faith to join a band of students escaping Constantius’ Court for Athens and intellectual argument.
Here Kent’s largely male cast provide a shared mounting excitement – and whether fuelled by religious or intellectual ardour, there’s also plenty of testosterone. Jamie Ballard’s Julian is constantly on the edge. The large band of students who whisk him off to Athens are thrilling in their intellectual zeal, led by Prasanna Puwanarajah’s fiery Medon (surely a name to watch). The little coterie of Christians around Julian, Jamie Ballard’s Gregory, James McArdle’s Agathon and John Hefferman’s Peter, are almost terrifying in the certainty of their faith. They begin as a group, but each succeeds in making his own personal faith journey. And inevitable there’s conflict when their paths cross with the newly-pagan Emperor Julian. Indeed the martyrdom of Gregory is as chilling for its clash of certainties as for its graphic bloodshed.
But Julian’s descent to autocratic ruler is so convincingly charted, that it’s hard not to retain some sympathy for him. When his bride is murdered, she’s instantly elevated to Evita-like sainthood and Christianity looks like a cult of the dead as thousands flock to touch the miracle-working corpse. And Julian finds his salvation and his nemesis in Maximus, an ascetic philosopher with his own agenda. With shades of Macbeth’s witches, he interprets signs and wonders to shape Julian, by telling him what he wants to hear. And Ian McDiarmid’s Maximus is believably hard to resist.
These great events and rigorous journeys are played out on a monumental set that thrillingly exploits the Olivier’s mechanics, back projections and costumes mixing the fourth century with the twenty-first to draw uneasy parallels. Not an easy evening, but rewarding one.