Review: Peter Gynt, National Theatre, August 2019

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Peter Gynt – National Theatre, Aug’ 19’. Review by Tamsin Flower


Script by David Hare

Direction by Jonathan Kent


Everyone loves seducers and sociopaths…in fiction. The great thing about heroes with narcissistic or sociopathic traits is –  they take risks, make conquests, have adventures, and fall from grace only to rise, phoenix-like, smelling of charisma. Our fascination with characters like Peer Gynt, Don Juan, Cassanova, Frank Abagnale (Catch Me if You Can), the Marquis de Sade or even the Steve Coogan character in Michael Winterbottom’s Cock and Bull Story, is enduring. These figures and their female counterparts (Moll Flanders and Becky Sharpe spring to mind) live the capers we often don’t dare to, and offer some compass-point on the blurry map of ethics. Jonathan Kent’s Production of David Hare’s ‘Peter Gynt’ brings the epic misadventures of Ibsen’s ‘Peer’ to a twenty-first century audience.

True to epic form, Hare’s Peer/Peter plays out his emotional highs and lows across continents and levels of reality. From the remote highlands of Scotland to the halls of the mountain trolls/pigs, to his own Morroccan resort and an Egyptian research facility, Peter (in the words of Peer Gynt’s critics*) ‘lives a life based on procrastination and avoidance.’ Yet, there is plenty of action. Returning home from war and raving of fantasy heroics to his mother, Peter encounters Sabine, the love of his life, before debauching an heiress on her wedding day. Sabine’s devotion leads her to follow Peter into the woods, where the pair experience short-lived happiness. This is swiftly followed by Peter’s submission to the whispers of the Boyg, (excruciatingly well played by Nabil Shaban) who tells him to use a ‘strategy.’ Our hero is persuaded to become worthy of Sabine’s love by abandoning her in search and fame and fortune. Peter embraces the attentions of the troll princess (‘The Woman in Green), played amusingly as a show-biz cougar by Tamsin Caroll. Disastrously, he wears the tail of the mountain pigs/trolls, subscribing to their self-serving avarice. Act Two opens on ‘Gyntland,’ the affluent resort Peter has founded on the back of his multi-million dollar empire. When his fortune is then stolen by business affiliates, an alluring socialite offers our hero the opportunity to be Guru of a fashionable sect. This takes him to Arabia, where he addresses a conference, only to have his identity unmasked by the elites who ruined him. Peter effortlessly takes on the mantle of Historian/Philosopher in Egypt before he is identified as the perfect subject for research into ‘the self’. Within a facility, where each subject can be exactly who they wish, Peter is appointed ‘King of the Self.’                                               

A traditional view of Ibsen’s play is that its episodic and filmic nature poses practical staging problems. So, when better to embrace its fantastic ambition than in the age of digital and Post (Post Post?) Modernism. It is stage machinery, crystalline AV projection and ingenious design by Richard Hudson that bring: the seductive cowgirls entrance from the mountains, the Boyg’s appearance from the earth and Peter’s penultimate sea-journey home to life. How can magical cowgirls, man-pigs, manifestations of the ego and the mountains, golf-courses, deserts and oceans they inhabit co-exist in a set-design? Slickly. We are offered a cogent surrealist vision to deliver doors in the clouds and mountains and storms of photographic realism. ‘Gyntland’ is a little more eclectic with its neon-sign and manicured golf-club. But its garishness successfully reminds us of our obsession with high-end living and the story’s relevance in today’s world.

David Hare’s use of business and contemporary language seamlessly serves this fable of ego versus love and truth. The Boyg’s repeated instruction to ‘make a strategy’ supports Ibsen’s original words – ‘go around’ and the rhetoric Peter delivers as a guru is lifted straight from western self-development culture. Equally, the mountain-trolls’ pig-noses, top-hats and right-wing attitudes situate them perfectly in our shared imagination as members of the Bullingdon Club. However, Hare’s nod to modern relevance can seem dated and superfluous at times with jokes surrounding health-food habits and technology etc. Incongruence is hard to place in a stage-world where the real and unreal meet. But the plot device of Peter’s associates stealing his fortune via online-banking feels implausible. When the action is in this more concrete setting, it is hard not to question how likely this move would be without redress. In these instances the script out-does itself in ways that do not compromise the overall strength of the show.

James McArdle’s performance combines the feverish enthusiasm with which Peter tells his stories with boyish relishment of his conquests. The characterisation is so well studied and articulated, it is hard not to recognise the salesman, seducers and performers who have marked our own stories. Peter’s self-interested amorality is forgiven (ironically) because of his innocence. When asked why he escaped with the town heiress instead of pursuing Sabine, Peter hilariously replies ‘That would require a level of self-awareness that I simply don’t have.’ Hare’s poignant dialogue also packs an emotional punch, not least when Peter holds his dying mother in his arms and soothes her with child-like storytelling.  Similarly, he is held by Sabine at the play’s close, when we have been told by the Button Moulder (played by Oliver Ford Davies) that Peter’s only sin was not to have loved when he was called to. The aesthetic and emotional synthesis acheived brings Peer’ to life as an epic fantasy and moral fable that we can all relate to.



* Brockett and Hildy (2003, 391) and Meyer (1974, 284)

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