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Review of Peter Gynt at the Olivier Theatre

Peter Gynt Company
Peter Gynt Company – Photo by Manuel Harlan

If you’ve something to say, speak prose like everyone else,” a frustrated Peter Gynt (James McArdle) tells various characters – voices of the past haunting his mind – in an apparent sideswipe at the Norwegian play Peer Gynt on which this one is based, a five-act play entirely in verse. It’s entirely possible to follow Peter Gynt without any prior knowledge of Peer Gynt, which is probably just as well given the 3 hours 30 minutes running time. The production either blesses or curses its audiences with two intervals, and for those who are familiar with the Ibsen storyline will recognise its similar characteristics in this David Hare play set in strikingly different surroundings. The story has brought up to date and virtually screams ‘contemporary’ with the use of a laptop and credit cards as well as references to various motion pictures and television series.

No dramatic use is made of the National Theatre’s Olivier stage revolve, of which the NT is usually keen to showcase. Instead, a large piece of grassland dominates stage right, sloping at a steep angle to form, in effect, a ridiculously oversized and almost ridiculously steep ramp, over which actors must (and do) negotiate with extra caution. The setting here is listed as “Scotland, Florida, Africa and at sea” and there are probably few theatres in the non-subsidised sector that would even want to spend the sums that the National has on quite convincingly portraying a golf course in one act and then a ship in another.

One of the articles in the show’s programme mentions the Willy Russell play Educating Rita, in which the title character answers the question on an Open University course, “Suggest how you would resolve the staging difficulties inherent in a production of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt”, with a pithy “Do it on the radio”. I don’t wish to knock the set design (Richard Hudson) here, because it is superb, but the same could apply to this adaptation. The sound design (Christopher Shutt) is exquisite, and unusually for a play, there are six musicians, visible far upstage left, enhancing the live theatrical experience.

They are kept busy in a play with songs, which break up what might otherwise have been an intensely and relentlessly miserable piece of theatre. This Gynt begins as a Scottish soldier returned home, with all sorts of war stories, but it’s clear that all of them are lifted from the narratives of miscellaneous films, to the point where his mother Agatha (Ann Louise Ross) can even name the principal actors in one of the films her son is talking about, and without resorting to Google.

Ann Louise Ross and James McArdle
Ann Louise Ross and James McArdle – Photo by Manuel Harlan

I liked a scene, macabre as it was, in which Begriffenfeldt (Jonathan Coy), who runs an ‘institution’ (for which read ‘lunatic asylum’, or perhaps in these apparently more enlightened times, ‘psychiatric ward’). One of his patients wants to go back to the days when people didn’t use split infinitives and the passports were blue. A late encounter Gynt faces with The Button Moulder (Oliver Ford Davies) went on a little too long, I thought, even if Ford Davies puts in an authoritative performance, calmly and confidently explaining to Gynt what is going on and other matters such as the true meaning of ‘be yourself’ is more to do with self-improvement than self-discovery (not that either term is clearly defined in the show).

It’s called Peter Gynt for a reason, however, and in the title character role, James McArdle puts in a tour de force performance, arrogant and dislikeable to begin with, and while there’s no Damascene conversion to speak of, there’s a thoughtful late scene in which, as it turns out, his deeds over the years may have been dastardly but ultimately have not resulted in anything that could be considered evil with a capital E. Individualistic attitudes prevail perhaps more so in our day than in Henrik Ibsen’s, and this play does well to put across the various consequences of self-indulgence in the twenty-first century. A play this long ebbs and flows, as it perhaps should, but it is an engaging and raucous experience.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Ibsen’s classic is reinvented as a riotous musical adventure for the 21st century.
Peter Gynt is searching for something: himself. Traveling from the mountains of Scotland to the pool-sides of Florida, he’ll meet talking hyenas, two-headed trolls and even an Egyptian Sphinx. But his ultimate transformation may not be all that he hoped for…

Playing the rebellious antihero, James McArdle (Angels In America) is reunited with David Hare and Jonathan Kent, the partnership behind the triumphant Young Chekhov at Chichester Festival Theatre and the National Theatre.

This outrageous modern myth is designed by the Tony award-winning Richard Hudson (The Lion King), with an original score from Paul Englishby (BBC’s Luther and Dr Foster) and movement direction from Polly Bennett (Bohemian Rhapsody).

Philip Cairns, Tamsin Carroll, Anya Chalotra, Jonathan Coy, Caroline Deyga, Tia Dutt, Lauren Ellis-Steele, Oliver Ford Davies, Andrew Fraser, Guy Henry, Dani Heron, Ryan Hunter, Isabelle Joss, Ezra Faroque Khan, Rehanna MacDonald, Lorne MacFadyen, Marc Mackinnon, James McArdle, Adam McNamara, Martin Quinn, Ann Louise Ross, Nabil Shaban, Jatinder Singh Randhawa, Sonnyboy Skelton, Hannah Visocchi.

Production Team
Director Jonathan Kent
Set and Costume Designer Richard Hudson
Lighting Designer Mark Henderson
Composer Paul Englishby
Music Director Kevin Amos
Sound Designer Christopher Shutt
Movement Director Polly Bennett
Video Designer Dick Straker
Fight Director Paul Benzing
Illusions Chris Fisher
Associate Director Harry Mackrill
Associate Set and Costume Designer Cara Newman
Company Voice Work Jeannette Nelson
Company Voice Work Victoria Woodward
Dialect Coach Charmian Hoare
Staff Director Cara Nolan

From 27 June to 8 October 2019
Running Time: approx. 3 hrs 20 mins (inc 2 intervals)


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