Peter Gynt


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.

Total Immediate Collective Imminent Terrestrial Salvation

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Total Immediate Collective Imminent Terrestrial Salvation by Tim Crouch – Royal Court Theatre, London

Wherever Tim Crouch is involved, unpredictability is guaranteed. Audience expectations will be tested and the components of theatre dismantled. An apparently gentle experience will, in all likelihood, become steadily more unnerving. Total Immediate Collective Imminent Terrestrial Salvation fits the template. Seated in a circle, the audience are participants from the start, equipped with a book each and beset with enquiries about reading glasses. The themes of trusting a writer, following a text and seeing clearly, or not, are upfront. What follows is technically ingenious and innovative, as the audience turns through the story page by page, some of it shown in drawing form, some as text spoken by the actors and, sometimes, read by the audience. However, the form seems to dominate the central drama which seems constrained, not released, by these filters.

The group experience of reading what is, effectively, a graphic novel, is strangely compelling. As a family tragedy, subsequent separation and its alarming context is played out by the cast of three (Shyvonne Ahmmad, Susan Vidler and, eventually, Crouch himself) the truth of what is written down in front of us is brought into question. However, the gaps between story and reality come as no surprise, and the drama underwhelms. Ultimately a play about both grief and doomsday cults, the story is hard to credit from a naturalistic point of view. Because it is played dead straight, the story’s metaphysical edge is dulled and the events of the play seem more device than drama. The experience of being experimented with as an audience, however, is oddly exciting even if the experiment does not add up to much more than the sum of its parts.

Bartholomew Fair


Bartholomew Fair by Ben Jonson – Sam Wanamaker Theatre, London

It may seem a little perverse to stage Ben Jonson’s sprawling, outdoor Bartholomew Fair in the Globe’s indoor theatre but, as the highly informative programme points out, it was staged both indoors and outdoors at the Hope Theatre when first performed. Despite the heretical use of electric lighting in the normally candlelit Sam Wanamaker Theatre, Blanche McIntyre’s engaging and entertaining production gets the atmosphere right. Hanging the rear of stage in butchered pig carcasses provides the roast pig stall setting while also hinting at darker themes – essentially people trafficking – that lurk among the fun of the fair. Jonson’s city comedy, rarely performed, can be unwieldy but this version, judiciously cut, conjures up the carnival and takes us back to the early 17th century while bridging the gap to our times.

There are thirty-plus roles in the play, but they are cleverly doubled among an eclectic, busy cast of twelve. Jonson’s gloriously earthy, accessible, rich language roles off the tongue of Jenna Augen as the fearsome,  pork stall owner, surrounded by pickpockets, pimps and an Irish ‘horse courser’ and all-round villain, played by Bryony Hannah when she is not Grace Wellborn, an uimpressed French woman in sunglasses at the other end of the social scale. Forbes Masson stands out as an increasingly angry Scotsman, also finding time to play a crusty hustler and, spectacularly, a ludicrous simpering woman selling pears. Zach Wyatt is highly entertaining as the rich young man who is everybody’s gull.

The Fair brings a motley collection of the cunning and the foolish, and most the latter think they are the former. Foremost is Dickon Tyrrell’s Clousea-esque JP, Adam Overdo, scoping wrongdoing in disguise. As the figure of authority he might be expected to restore order at the end of the play, but instead the dominant figure is Jude Owusu’s ambivalent, menacing Tom Quarlous who bests everyone. The play is full of energy, and highly entertaining throughout, while making no attempt to glamorise the city’s underbelly. It seems modern and ancient in equal measure, rather like Smithfield where the St. Bartholomew Fair was held for centuries. McIntyre makes a powerful case for this play, one of Jonson’s greatest achievements, to be seen far more often.

The Doctor


© Manuel Harlan

The Doctor by Robert Icke, adapted from Arthur Schnitzler – Almeida Theatre, London

Robert Icke’s final production for the Almeida, after spectacular successes including Mary Stuart, Andrew Scott’s Hamlet and The Wild Duck, is a complete reworking of a play by Arthur Schnitzler. He rips the original play, Professor Bernhardi, out of its turn-of-the-century Vienna setting, and drops it into the information age. Disturbingly, the central theme of anti-semitism remains seems as relevant. However, other 21st century issues have been added to the mix: specifically sexism, other forms of racism, ageism, and transgender prejudice. Icke makes a fascinating move by using complete gender-blind and racially-blind casting. This holds the play’s identity politics up to immediate question when a white actor declares himself the only black doctor in the hospital. However, there are too many issues for any one play to carry and, while, the performances and staging are exemplary, the evening seems more like an episode of The Moral Maze than a natural, inevitable drama.

Anything with Juliet Stevenson is worth watching, whatever its faults. She plays Ruth Wolff, a dementia expert at the top of her profession. She is arrogant and self-assured, unaware that her inability to relate to other people is a tragic flaw. She refuses a priest access to a dying girl and, within three days, her career is destroyed in a social media-fuelled cataclysm. She is arrogant and self-assured, unaware that her inability to relate to other people is a tragic flaw. Stevenson is brittle, fierce and vulnerable. Her mastery of emotional nuance means it is hard to take your eyes off her extraordinarily expressive face. Two performances stand out in a strong cast. Ria Zmitrowicz, who recently made her mark in the Almeida’s Three Sisters, puts in a perfect performance as Ruth’s transgender teenaged friend who she inevitably betrays. And Nathalie Armin, as calculating yet sympathetic Government minister, is excellent but under-used.

However, while the standard of performance is high it is hard to believe in Icke’s adaptation. It relies on a couple of transitional moments which are essential to the plot, but hard to credit. There are complex and current questions to be explored but, ultimately, the play needs greater focus and simplicity to make it seem like real life.


Sh!t Theatre Drink Rum With Expats

Sh!t Theatre Drink Rum With Expats by Sh!t Theatre – Summerhall, Edinburgh

Sh!t Theatre duo Rebecca and Louise are having a great time, serving drinks to the audience and showing photos from their trip to Malta. They’ve recreated The Pub, Valletta’s prime ex-pat drinking hole, where Oliver Reed drank himself to death. The fun starts to seem a little dark when we seen just how relentlessly Reed’s alcoholism is merchandised, with his lethal final drink order available on t-shirts with the heading ‘Legend!’ Louise and Rebecca, operating beneath the heavy disguise of their supposed amateurism, turn this odd, post-colonial, disturbingly corrupt setting into clever, sophisticated political theatre. In Malta to make a show for Valletta’s European Capital of Culture slot, we gradually understand that the version we are seeing could not be performed there. Political content was banned, and they were concerned for the safety of their Maltese friends.

The politics is dark and significant, centring on the 2017 assassination of anti-corruption journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. Still unsolved, her murder links to the sale of Maltese passports and the question of who gets to be European. Meanwhile, hundreds of migrants drown in boats off the Maltese coast, while the authorities deny any such people exist. It is a real achievement to make such a powerful and important show, tackling a complex web of themes, while also finding time for crowd-surfing. This is Sh!t Theatre’s strongest show yet, a tour-de-force told in their inimitable voices.


Collapsible by Margaret Perry – Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh

A monologue performed by Breffni Holohan perched on a concrete platform, Collapsible is about mental breakdown. The narrator has lost he job and has done something unspecified but bad. Friends and relatives are concerned by wary, and she pushes people away. The tone of Perry’s writing is manic, balancing like like Holohan on the edge. There are strong shades of ‘Fleabag’s’ unreliable, self-deluding narrator, although without the sex. Collapsible is well-performed but seems familiar and too predictable for a a play about what happens when it all falls apart.


Styx by Max Barton & Addison Axe- Zoo Southside, Edinburgh

A band, led by a brother and a sister, tell stories of their grandparents and their loss of memory, filtered through the Orpheus myth. Max talks to his grandmother, in the early stage of Alzheimer’s, on the soundtrack, while the band perform his songs about Orpheus. She and his grandfather, now dead, ran a basement Swiss Cottage jazz club in the 1950s and Max searches for evidence of the place. Like Orpheus, whenever he turns to look it disappears.

Styx is original and surprisingly theatrical. Interviews with Max’s amusing and characterful grandma are signalled with a flashing light, like a seance. Band members play parts in the narration, and the songs are strong. Max and Addison are accomplished musicians, and the way they work together is both charming and, in their love for their grandparents and their history, properly moving.