Ibsen’s Peer Gynt is a notoriously complex and difficult piece to stage, and rarely revived. In Peter Gynt, veteran playwright David Hare has taken the Norwegian classic as inspiration to create a new play, starring James McArdle as the titular hero.
Across three acts and two intervals, we watch Peter’s trajectory as he returns home to Scotland from conflict, is made an outcast from his village, becomes a wealthy arms dealer, survives a plane crash, finds himself in an asylum, and finally, wrecked at sea and back where he started.
The stage design by Cara Newman with high-up doors, a grassy plain, a precarious ramp, and more, takes the story to Florida and Africa. The complexity of set changes requires the two breaks which take the running time to over three hours, but the production is never a bore.
The story requires a large and diverse cast, of which Guy Henry is a particular stand-out as a French trader who even sings a bit, as well as a strange grotesque with a death obsession. In what amounts to an extended cameo at the end, Oliver Ford Davies commands the stage as the button moulder, who collects the souls of those who made no impact in life.
Peter Gynt is the story of the rise and fall of a fantasist (he describes his life as a series of film scenes and plots) who sees himself as heroic, but who ultimately fails to “be himself”. McArdle catches the spirit of the cocky soldier, the irresponsible money machine, and the broken philosopher perfectly, and is riveting to watch as the play progresses.
The decision to include songs is a little hit and miss: a dream sequence with horny cowgirls works well, but a solo from Gynt’s lost love in her bookshop store feels misplaced. The dream aspects of the play are agreeably odd – the troll supper, and the asylum coronation, on a tower of blood-red chairs.
Less successful are the thinly-veiled caricatures of Donald Trump on his golf course, and David Cameron “chillaxing”: much better are the scenes where Gynt tells his dying mother a story, or where he faces his own mortality.
Peter Gynt continues at the Olivier, National Theatre. Photo credits Manuel Harlan.