The Emperor Self @ Arcola, London

Cast List:
Benjamin OMahoney, Geoff Arnold, Jackie Haliday, Michael Edwards, Iestyn Arwel, Tristan Brooke, Caroline Amer, Natalie Wallace, Tom Larkin, Samantha Dakin, Natasha Andrews

Directed by
Mahdi Yahya

The Emperor Self, the creation of Enkephale Theatre, explores the ideas of Henrik Ibsen through largely physical theatre.

The key notion underlying this examination of the playwrights life and works is that of the self, and the title refers to the supremacy that can be obtained by anyone who truly comes to find and be themselves.

The piece broadly takes us through Ibsens life from womb to tomb, although in exploring his relationship with the theatre and the journeys (both physical and metaphorical) that he took, it possesses no conventional plot.
Dialogue is kept to a minimum, and most of the speaking that does occur (some of which uses Ibsens own words) acts as a launchpad to explore the relevant idea physically. At the start the director wheels Ibsens mother on who double checks her microphone before reading a text that describes everything that she has just done. This spooky deja vu then becomes all the more intriguing when it is revealed that the book she read from contains nothing but blank pages.

From here on in we are introduced to a range of characters that dominated Ibsens existence. Some such as his mother were real people (the programmes cast list pointedly describes his father as in absentia). Others capture the type of character that he encountered in the theatre – a director, a fool, a lady, a lover and a princess among others – and represent the different aspects of his being. Their movement and dancing is immensely skilful, and as Ibsen (Benjamin OMahoney) describes them all they move mechanistically, sometimes just flicking a single hand from side to side. They also interact with life size dummies of themselves, dancing with or conversely laughing at them, to reveal the different sides that there are to self discovery.

Things take a while to warm up, but the third scene depicts The Last Supper which features some effective props and strong singing. The intensity achieved here (I am convinced that some cast members were told to fix on an audience member and remain staring at them) is then sustained, so that watching the show becomes a captivating, almost hypnotic, experience.

The show is also aided by its effective music, played by a string quartet. Combining adaptations of Griegs Peer Gynt with newly developed material it can feel minimalist or folksy, and is also used to punctuate the spoken word. Clare Amoss costumes and Edwin Fords make-up are also exquisite, and there is even an element of serendipity here. The performers faces are dazzlingly white at the start, but under the strong lighting the make-up starts to lose its shine in the second half. This, however, only contributes to the idea that a journey of self discovery can be long, arduous and frequently damaging.

Although The Emperor Self meditates on aspects of Ibsens life, it does not close the loop by providing any new insights into the man. As the programme makes clear, it was never the intention to offer answers, but still the play could leave some (though not necessarily all) Ibsen fans feeling unfulfilled.

But while I would not necessarily suggest this show to people wishing to learn about Ibsen, I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in physical theatre. The Emperor Self is an example of just how powerful and compelling the genre can be.

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