Ibsen's 'Emperor and Galilean': a lost classic

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The Independent Culture

At several points in his life, Henrik Ibsen described Emperor and Galilean, the vast historical drama that he wrote between 1868 and 1873, as his "main work", or most important play. It is, therefore, an astonishing fact that the piece is so little known and has never been staged in English. My new adaptation of the play will give audiences the chance to experience the extraordinary power of this epic piece of theatre.

The play describes the life of Julian, who ruled the Holy Roman Empire between 361 and 363AD, and his attempts to abolish the state religion of Christianity and replace it with the worship of the ancient, pagan Gods. Julian is charismatic, articulate, flawed and very human. Through his tragic journey, the playwright explores fundamentalism in an explicit and entirely modern way.

In its entirety, the original takes up 10 acts and over eight hours of drama. In creating this new version, I've conflated characters and scenes, and the new version will last just over three hours. Jonathan Kent's production will use a cast of 50 performers, to realise the scale of Ibsen's vision. The playwright puts the whole of the Roman Empire – soldiers, politicians, Pagans, Christians – onstage and, in the midst of it all, describes a young man with a very modern problem; how to reconcile his yearning for faith with the reality of the world in which he lives. It was the dilemma which faced Ibsen in the middle of the 19th century and it's one which faces much of the world in 2011.

'Emperor and Galilean', National Theatre, London SE1 (020 7452 3000) 9 June to 31 July