As you enter the Olivier theatre the first thing you notice is the imposing figure of Christ on the cross looming over the stage. Appropriate as the next 3 and a half hours focuses on the Emperor Julian’s (Andrew Scott) battles with “the Galilean” as he encourages Rome to cast aside Christianity and return to the old gods.
The play starts with Julian’s friends meeting for the first time in several years in Constantinople. Peter is loyal and brave (and probably more than a little in love with Julian), Gregory steadfast and Agathon passionate and devout. Agathon has been lead to Constantinople by a divine vision of Julian which he wants to share with him. But Julian is not the friend they remember. Humiliated by the Roman stewards and a virtual prisoner of his uncle, the Emperor Constantius, Julian is fearful and plagued with doubt. His faith is shaken and he fears god has abandoned him. But the hand of destiny is upon him and as he views shooting stars falling from the sky he remembers his mother’s belief that he would be a “second Alexander”.
Tempted by the free thinking students who despise the oppressive regime in Constantinople Julian follows them to Athens where he indulges in drunken fun and games before meeting Maximus (a marvellous Ian McDiarmid) in Ephesus – a union which both raises him to the giddy heights of Emperor but also brings about his downfall.
Julian’s journey is suitably epic – fear, temptation, freedom, spiritual awakening, love, loss, betrayal, persecution, madness and death – all of it is packed in over the course of the play as Julian becomes Caesar, gains a wife, fights valiant battles in Gaul, is named Emperor, causes civil war with his persecution of the Christians, betrays his friends in a quite spectacular manner before fighting a doomed war against the Persians.
As befits such an epic tale the staging is really quite spectacular making full use of the Olivier’s drum revolve. Huge forbidding Roman chapels & pagan temples rise out of the stage. Various edifices appear allowing the actors to roam on two levels and loom over the audience. Giant unsettling gold flecked pagan masks appear over the stage and a cross is set brilliantly and violently ablaze. The large cast adds to the spectacle whether they are chanting in a formal procession on their way into chapel, or writhing semi clothed in a bacchanalian manner as Julian disingenuously ushers in a new era of spiritual tolerance (while disappearing anyone who is a Christian) or a semi circle of soldiers stamping ominously as Julian rises ever more up the ranks.It’s quite a visual feast and you’re certainly never bored.
The costumes are an intriguing mix of old and new. Senators wear sharp suits overlaid with a dark toga and Julian and his army go to wear in camouflage fatigues with golden breastplates. It shouldn’t really work and yet it does making the play feel surprisingly contemporary.
The acting is impressive. John Heffernan exudes loyalty and kindness as Peter while James McArdle is all passion and fire as Agathon. Jamie Ballard gives a suitably unshowy turn as Gregory, getting to shine in one particularly gory scene which had the audience wincing and averting their eyes. Richard Durden is suitably slimy as Ursulus the Emperor’s advisor and Daniel Flynn and Chris Jared shine as two increasingly perplexed generals in Julian’s army – struggling with their leader’s descent into madness.
Ian McDiarmid is fascinating and compelling as Maximus. Part Merlin, part Mephistopheles, he glides around the set draped in black appearing out of the murky gloom to intone sonorously about whatever new portent he has divined. It is left to the audience to decide whether he has Julian’s best interests at heart and misread the signs and portents or whether he is a devil placing temptation in his way and letting him stray from the path of righteousness – a road that will lead to his downfall. He doesn’t get a huge amount of stage time but he certainly makes the most of it.
But this is without question Andrew Scott’s play. The role of Julian has been declared as “bigger than Hamlet” and is quite extraordinary requiring him to be on stage for virtually every scene in the 3 and a half hour running time. Thankfully Scott is more than up to the challenge. In fact he’s really wonderful with a superb stage presence – you can hardly take your eyes off him. Given the running time it would be easy for you to get bored with Julian’s journey but Scott ensures that doesn’t happen. He starts off humiliated and afraid, tearing up as he tells his friends about his doubts over his faith appearing terribly fragile and small up on that huge stage. And as the play continues we get to watch him almost visibly grow in stature – in fact when he came on towards the beginning of Act 2 topless, hair slicked back, wearing a long leather duster and prowling across that stage like an angry panther, sword in hand I didn’t initially recognise him at all. It’s a hell of a part for an actor and Andrew Scott gives it his absolute all. He was superb throughout whether crying at Julian’s loss of faith, lightheartedly laughing with his friends, drunkenly railing against the pointlessness of existence, crumpling in anguish at his wife’s actions, rallying his troops to defend him from the treacherous Emperor, serenely embracing the old gods, brutally ordering the deaths of the “army of the Galilean” to utter madness in the Persian desert.
He also gets to wear some rather stunning costumes – a natty black Nehru jacket when in Constantinople, more causal shirt and trousers when in Athens, followed by a gold brocade full on bling jacket when made Emperor. I especially liked how his golden wreath as Emperor looked very much like Christ’s crown of thorns. And did I mention the topless scene? Shallow I know but it would be wrong not to point out he does look rather fine in it.
I’m not sure I’m overly enamoured of the play itself. At 3 and a half hours it’s quite the commitment and many didn’t come back after the interval. The first act seemed stronger than the second as we get to know the major players. There is a pervading air of menace hanging over proceedings as destiny conspires to bring Julian closer to power. But the pay off isn’t quite as interesting as it should be sadly. But it’s worth seeing simply for the spectacle of the piece and the sheer power of Andrew Scott’s performance.