Peer Gynt

With humble beginnings as an idle farm lad, the eponymous hero of Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt is chastised by his mother for wasting his time on earth dreaming of greatness - to which, without further ado, he rectifies by stirring up trouble amongst the local town and disappearing to the mountains with a newly-wed bride (no, not his). The tale of his ensuing adventures is brought well and truly to life here with the music, movement and masterful puppetry of Gruffdog Theatre.

There is a Brechtian sense of ensemble in play here

Our protagonist is on a quest to find his identity - it feels fitting, therefore, that this story is told by a fluid ensemble that thinks and feels as one. Using three simple stage pieces and a handful of instruments Gruffdog Theatre transports its audience from run-down farm houses to the Hall of the Mountain King himself - although there are points where small additions would have clarified the direction of our journey, such as a sudden jump from land to sea.

This production has mastered what is, to my mind, one of the ultimate multi-roling challenges: that of effectively and justifiably representing one character with multiple cast members. More than a simple tool to illustrate the passage of time, Peer Gynt’s transformation from the mischievous soul we first meet (played well by Joseph Stephenson) to a more sombre and responsible incarnation in Daisy Hayes occurs at a pivotal shift in tone, and continues to do so throughout his life.

I loved these moments of transition between actors, as they were used to create a brief interaction between selves, allowing an older Peer to reflect on what he had done. There is a Brechtian sense of ensemble in play here, that manifests itself mainly in the clear lines between action and inaction, as players spring to life and step into the background when the story requires.

As well as a nod to Edvard Grieg’s well-recognised refrain, the live musical accompaniment allows for a level of flexibility in the composition of this production, whether it’s the creaking of footsteps or the dramatic sound-effects to a late night bar fight. However, it was at times hard to hear the dialogue above the music, which meant that crucial plot points were occasionally drowned out.

For those unfamiliar with the text there may be some unanswered questions which can only be glossed over so far - but then again, this may be because I couldn’t hear them for the music. Either way, for the most part, these plot holes did not encumber the aesthetic enjoyment of the production.

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The Blurb

Deep in the mountains, the irrepressible Peer Gynt dreams of becoming emperor of the world. From the frozen peaks of Norway to the dusty streets of Egypt, one man spends a life understanding what it means to be at war with trolls. Peer Gynt is a sprawling, cinematic saga of mountains and monsters, revealing an intimate story of love, sin and dangerous ambition. With its distinctive combination of puppetry, live music and ensemble movement, Gruffdog Theatre brings a fierce intensity to Henrik Ibsen's poetic classic. 'Electric' ***** (Cherwell, 2016).

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