Peter Gynt

There was a time not long ago – when Facebook and Google weren’t even words – where we watched TV and learned from it, absorbing any new knowledge we discovered as fact. Not just the clever stuff Maggie Philbin said on Tomorrow’s World either, anything that was new to our own small worlds. It was back when Big Brother was a term only discussed by bookworm nerds between chess tournaments (I imagine!) and no one talked of “creative license” or “fake news”. For anyone now over 40, chances are that back in the dark recesses of the mind, is a hidden folder of Search Results, storing facts we can’t explain, but wholly believe.

This is theatre that is out of touch.

It’s why we know that divorce papers can legally be served on Christmas Day (Den and Ange), that drugs are bad and make you foam at the mouth (‘Noooo Zammo’); and that a stroke causes your head to lean to one side and your arm to stiffen (‘Helen Daniels’). It’s also – thanks to Julie Walters in Educating Rita – why you likely know that Ibsen’s Peer Gynt is a notoriously difficult play to stage and as Rita suggests would be better “on the radio”.

Nothing more is said about this socially accepted view of Ibsen’s problem play, that was originally written as a five-act poem in 1867. Depending on your own social environment, your personal literary reference library and your proximity in life to the ruminating time allowed to a student, you may still not know why this is a widely accepted truth about the 19th century five acter. Ever mindful that no one wants to risk being accused of having an inherent prejudice, allow me to give you enough bullet points to save face if the subject ever comes up over cheese and nibbles:

There are far too many characters than is necessary

Around 40 named or speaking – with another 40 or so needed for the many crowd scenes. The names are vague but the roles in this most recent production, aside from Gynt and his mother, are more than fully representative. From drunken angry wedding guests (who dance badly and sing whilst, in this production, balancing on the back of a truck), to a single parent immigrant family (that isn’t me being racist – it’s how they introduce themselves). There’s an array of trolls – female, male, beautiful, ugly, two-headed or pig-nosed – and their dinner party guests and slaves. And of course there’s singing cowgirls, part human-part soil mystics, hyenas, Donald Trump… Think overall of a mash-up between Benetton and The Greatest Showman. Fortunately, most roles can be double cast. Few would notice. Unfortunately, that’s due to most roles lacking any dimension. Or depth. Or purpose.

The sets are of a global scale

For over three long (long, long) hours, we go over three continents – both on land and at sea. Within those continents, there are more individual settings than even the grand nature of the Olivier stage can squeeze in as the aforementioned wedding lorry, hills, forests, golf courses, houses, human world and troll world all seem to be on endless conveyor belt of scene changes.

As a play, it’s a bit shit

Ibsen wrote the piece as a five-act poem intended to be spoken not performed. The reception to the poem was hostile, the quality of poetry lambasted, and Ibsen’s defence – ‘it is poetry; and if it isn’t it will become such” possibly wanting to add “cos my Dad said it is and my Dad is better than your Dads at poems that’s what everyone says so shut up”– showed signs of taking it to heart. It was revised for the stage nine years later. The stage burned down after less than 30 shows in its initial run. Omens.

The rambling ‘pre-Billy Liar, Billy Liar’ style follows the young man Gynt’s wild fantasies as he makes up worlds where he can be a hero, can be famous, can be in a play about himself (I know. Very meta). It was Ibsen’s last piece to use poetry both in the script and as visual and dreamlike metaphor throughout. Not long after came the work he is best known for – The Doll’s House, Hedda Gabler, The Master Builder – and whilst it may be sacrilegious to say, it’s because of the impact of those dark pieces that we still have to put up with the earlier bollocks. But it’s as though a different writer. Doing the try-outs before the successful stand. By rights it should have been burned with the notes.

Being positive, I suppose it is possible to make something out of the vague fantastical nature of the arcless story, not being anchored to any specific time, place, or culture in society. Put in the right creative hands – brave, young, risk-taking game changers (I wonder how The Jamie Lloyd Company might approach it) – there could be the potential to make the work’s lack of structure and general vacuity work to its advantage. With no restrictions there can be no limitations – creatively, visually, surreally.

But it’s sadly just a thought.

For this production, you can almost smell the comfortable leather of the well-worn, neatly fitting gloves wrapping the safe hands this has been secured to. Returning to the Olivier stage after 2018’s soundbite-heavy, insight-light political yawn I’m Still Running, David Hare is here using his ‘adapter’ quill (or being ‘after’ if you must, though this current term seems rather unnecessarily tautological to me). I would love to say he is back to form. He isn’t. Heavy with clunky self-parodying speeches, dialogue that jars for being too precise to be conversational and with too many cultural references that are specific to different times rather than timeless (from Brexit to the Bouncing Bomb – something for everyone?) – all pointed and underlined as though written for and by a Pantomime Dame. I suppose there was a clue in the clever renaming and the Scottish setting – no one pronounces their ‘t’s in these Scottish accents it seems – ooh, that’s clever.

Hare is partnered with his long time collaborator Jonathan Kent; a pairing that worked fantastically well in 2016’s Young Chekhov Trilogy. But neither seem to push each other creatively and, after a expectation raising striking opening when James McCardle returns ‘from the war’ as though stepping out of the clouds, creativity is replaced by money and pace confused with rushing. Instead of bringing energy, the actors (and set) just seem to be racing for the exit doors from the moment they come on stage. Though I can’t say I blame them.

Hare and Kent clearly had the idea that social media usage has resonance to this notion of creating stories about ourselves. Stories that are better than reality and only need to be believed in order to be true. Whilst I don’t disagree with the conceit, it’s a bit No Shit Sherlock; hardly the new news that they seem to think it is. It’s like when your Mum starts texting and uses LOL to offer condolences, or your Dad instas your baby photo. The combined 140 years age of writer and director is experience to be respected and revered. But their output here is aged and irrelevant for a theatre audience today that won’t respect you just because you tell them to. That time not long ago that I mentioned is long gone. This is theatre that is out of touch and should just go quietly back with it.

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The Blurb

An ordinary man. A remarkable journey.

Peter Gynt has always set his heart on being special, on being a unique individual, on being unlike anyone else. When he steals the bride from a local wedding, he sets off on a lifetime journey which will take him to Florida, to Egypt, to a mountain of trolls, and finally, only when death approaches, back to his home in Scotland.

In this radical new version, David Hare kidnaps Ibsen’s most famous hero and runs away with him into the 21st century. James McArdle takes the title role in this epic story of transformation, following his acclaimed performances in Platonov and Angels in America. He is reunited with David Hare and Jonathan Kent, the partnership behind the triumphant Young Chekhov at Chichester Festival Theatre and the National Theatre.

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