A dark vein of humour runs through a modernized Peter Gynt at the National Theatre as our hot-headed 22-year-old main character fantasizes his way through life by fabricating the truth. Rejecting his mother’s farming suggestion as a solid career, Peter Gynt (James McArdle) returns from the war spouting false tales of bravery from movies he’s seen. This small-town Peter bumbles through stealing the bride at a wedding, which creates a small town feud, seeing him banished from his village. But Peter wants out anyway, as he has bigger plans in mind.
In the original Ibsen text, Peter Gynt next poses as a prince to seduce a troll princess, hoping to fulfill his fantasy of having his own kingdom. In director Jonathan Kent’s bold production, the trolls are Oxbridge toffs sitting at a steeply raked dinner table, adorning pig snouts and gathering suspicions about the intruder and his compulsive lies.
Adapted by David Hare from Henrik Ibsen’s 1867 verse poem, Peter is quickly captured by the trolls and taken to their leader for scrutiny, as another dream passes through the expressionistic clouds, teaching our anti-hero very little.
Soon after, when he meets a kind woman named Sabine who has both beauty and unconditional love for him, (Anya Chalotra, touchingly simple) he is too self-involved to see her value. Sabine is referred to as “an immigrant” in one of the production’s understated political comments.
At the end of his life, Peter considers the real point of living with “any kind of consciousness.” David Hare’s successful adaptation aims to shows our friendless tragic hero in the fortune-seeking vanity of 2019 culture. It’s an evening of dramatic range and depth, alongside some outrageously entertaining musical interludes.
In an Act II opener set on a gold course in Florida, Peter has decided he wants to be a “citizen of the world.” Spouting at an all time loud for a group of sycophants, the political targets here are as obvious as the trio of sexy cowgirls he has kinky dreams about. But it is James McArdle’s central performance of caustic wit and lost soul power that inhabits Ibsen’s philoso-poem into a complete tapestry of entertaining dramatic vignettes, utilizing clever video (designed by Dick Straker) as a style of desperate understanding emerges for the man who only looks out for himself. And Peter loses all of his money with a click of an Apple Mac to thieves who acted interested in him.
The scale of Jonathan Kent’s wild production features memorable theatrical feats. The moment Peter aspires to become “Emperor of the World,” he has a plane crash landing him in North Africa where a group of cult goddesses play with his fragile identity even further. This co-production with the Edinburgh International Festival includes simple synchronized choreography by Polly Bennett, tight three-part harmonies musical directed by Kevin Amos, crystal clear vocal work from Jeanette Nelson and Victoria Woodward, and dialect work from Charmian Hoare. I defy any summer tourist to say they missed a word of this detailed vocal accomplishment from the entire company and an excellent sound design from Christopher Shutt.
Strong support comes from Ann Louise Ross as Gynt’s disappointed mother, as well as Jonathan Coy and Oliver Ford Davies who manage to turn the metaphors on the page into well-formed characters. A split set by Richard Hudson gives us half a farm and half a void, with moody lighting for the philosophical scenes (Mark Henderson), and bright states for the musical numbers, only occasionally leaving us in the dark.
A hugely memorable scene when the entire company “becomes” Peter Gynt is as powerful as any Lars von Trier art film climax, with costumes by Cara Newman.
Certainly this adaptation crowns David Hare as one of our most imaginative and skilled dramatists . His epic approach starts from the innocence of a rudderless youth, slam-dancing into adulthood with the shallowest of values. As audience, we quickly realize Peter’s search for fulfillment will only spiral downwards. Entering from a door floating in clouds , this charming small-town Scotsman dreams of a “hot Hollywood blonde actress who is serious about her work.” The mixture of drama, humour, witty acting, and innovative stagecraft make this Peter Gynt a masterpiece, commenting on the way we waste our modern lives, and the politicians who are the ring-leading culprits.
“People don’t have lives…. they have stories,” Peter repeats in searching confusion.
The support cast are a variety of acting levels, with strong actresses that double distinctly like Caroline Deyga playing a confused new bride, who gives a touching performance as Ingrid. The young male cast are sometimes too excited to stand still, but improve as the 3 1/2 hour evening sees them double as self-wounding soldiers, to pig-faced toffs.
Go if you want to be amazed by some terrific theatrical minds at work. I’ll certainly see it again.
- By David Hare, after Henrik Ibsen
- Directed by Jonathan Kent
- Composed by Paul Englishby
- Cast includes: James McArdle, Jonathan Coy, Oliver Ford Davies, Anya Chalotra, Caroline Deyga, Ann Louise Ross, Tamsin Carroll
- National Theatre
- Until 8 October 2019