Nabil Shaban and James McArdle © Manuel Harlan
Peter Gynt – by David Hare, adapted from Henrik Ibsen – National Theatre (Olivier), London
Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt is a sprawling play, which can be both its attraction and its downfall. Many attempts have been made to update and adapt the play to manage its picaresque structure and general supernatural weirdness. David Hare’s version for the National Theatre, with James McArdle in the lead, is the latest. He homes in on the relevance of the self-obsessed fantasist, the now-Scottish Peter, in the era of the self. Keeping the structure but rewriting much of the dialogue, Hare tries to make this a place about an era where people’s stories and the way they present them are as influential as actual achievements. While the theme fits, the result is not subtle and Jonathan Kent’s production is compelling and epic at its best, but dreary and unfocused at its worst.
On the credit side McArdle, barely off stage during a long 3hr 20mins, puts in a full throttle performance. The cast delivers some fine performances: Any Chalotra as impossibly patient lover Sabine (Solveig in the original), Nabil Shaban as a strange guru called The Boyg, Guy Henry as the sprightly Lean One (the Devil), and Oliver Ford Davies as a gentle but implacable Button Moulder, the personification of death. Scenes that stand out are those where the play regains focus by moving closer to the original – Peter’s stories to his dying mother, and the final confrontations with the Lean One and the Button Moulder.
However, there is plenty that does not work. Hare’s version seems entirely unsubtle, replacing the mysticism of Peer Gynt with prosaic repetition of themes. Updating to an early 21st century setting, with strangely specific references to small Scottish towns, creates jarring moments such as a soldier who cuts off his finger to avoid ‘the draft’ to fight in Iraq. Hare briefly turns Peter into a new age guru for some paper thin satire. The production team seem to have lost faith in the middle section, where Peter become a rapacious businessman, and it is staged as a half-hearted musical. It’s hard to avoid the feeling that removing all the songs, especially one in which Sabine croons “What is my story and where will it end?” would cut the running time by a much-needed 30 minutes. There is also a serious problem with the set, which covers half the Olivier stage in a grassy slope and leaves the other half bare, creating an enormous echo for all the dialogue spoke on this side.
Peter Gynt is good in parts and has much to offer, not least a rare opportunity to see this rarely performed piece. However, David Hare does not succeed in repurposing it convincinglyfor these times, and director Jonathan Kent does not find a way to overcome its notoriously episodic, fantastical structure.