In London, Ibsen is being staged as never before, in all shapes and forms. Last year there was an attempt at post-metoo debate in The Wild Duck at Almeida, a bilingual production of The Lady from the Sea, signed Kåre Conradi and The Norwegian Ibsen Company, and a brilliant adaptation of Rosmersholm at the Duke of York’s Theatre. This summer it was time for Peer Gynt, or Peter Gynt as the play is now called in David Hare’s free adaptation. In the past, Hare’s had success with his version of The Master Builder with Ralph Fiennes, but the acclaimed playwright has outdone himself with Peter Gynt, which in Jonathan Kent’s dynamic direction has turned out both pensive and hilarious.
Peer Gynt might be the most challenging play by Ibsen to put on abroad, and in England everyone from Ralph Richardson to Chiwetel Ejiofor have taken on the guise of the entitled title character. However, Hare’s Scottish reinterpretation brings renewed relevance to the old classic, particularly in light of recent years’ discussions of male irresponsibility and superficial individualism. The programme claims that the play is written ‘by David Hare, after Henrik Ibsen,’ and here the emphasis should be on after – Hare’s Gynt not only sports a new first name, but a new nationality and a new set of cultural references. Peter the Scot first shows himself in a doorway in the sky, before he struts down a set of stairs between the clouds, shouting for his mother. He’s been to war, he claims, and mother Agatha comes out in a knitted vest to listen to her son’s tall tales, all of which uncannily resemble the 1961 film The Guns of Navarone.
The level of Peter’s stories is the same, even though Hare has completely renovated the original script: there are no rhymes (Peter himself thinks people should stick to prose), but the text remains witty and devilishly entertaining, brim full of references and performed in a fantastic Scottish. Peter wants to be famous: ‘If I can’t be exceptional, I don’t want to be,’ he states. As with so many others, Peter’s life plays out on a forever lit stage, where external affirmation is all that counts. ‘If people believe you did something, then you did it’, he relates to the audience, making it clear that it’s not the life you’ve led, but rather the stores you tell that matter – everything’s allowed on the road to self-fulfilment.
Steeped in his own self-interest, Peter readily complains about society, before he gives himself over to actively making it worse. This production is highly critical of the rich and the powerful, and Hare’s reinterpretation sometimes ventures into parody (in one scene sheiks and filthy rich investors dance together at a ‘Davos in the desert’, singing joyfully of how wonderful it is to save the world as long as they don’t have to pay tax.) However, those criticised are recognisable representatives of figures from our time, whether they are war profiteers, self-aggrandising billionaires or old men longing for the golden age of the empire. God is evidently dead – as long as you repent you may sin all you want – ‘a good system’, notes Agatha.
As in the Norwegian-Swedish director Alexander Mørk-Eidem’s production of Peer Gynt from 2014, Hare and Kent’s Solveig, or Sabine as she is called here, is also part of an immigrant family. Initially shocked by Peter’s lack of manners, she soon becomes smitten, almost obsessed with the self-centered young man, and is just as faithful in her longing for him as Ibsen’s Solveig. She becomes Peter’s virtuous anchor, but as so often with this character, she is more symbol than substance.
David Hare has had a lot of creative freedom when reinventing Ibsen’s antihero – in his version the three herdgirls are turned into rowdy cowgirls, who under a smiling cartoon-sun lures Peter further into his own immature fantasy, all whilst singing the refrain ‘trolls all love to party.’ He is led to the hall of the Mountain King on a tricycle-cum-torture instrument, with a half-naked, pig-faced troll as his coachman. Anitra steals all his credit cards, and with that his whole identity. The action is often painfully corny, but is never at odds with the play’s seriousness, as all the bright colours and dance-numbers only make Peter Gynt’s fall from grace all the more grueling.
James McArdle excels as the title character, and manages, seemingly with ease, to take Peter from young scoundrel through cunning middle-aged billionaire to embittered old man in the final act. All the time he balances Peter’s two main characteristics – his selfishness and his intense wish to have a true core – with what becomes existential anguish when facing the Button Moulder. Towards the end we see an ageing Peter sitting with his legs into an open grave whilst frantically peeling an onion. ‘When will I ever get to the heart?’ he shouts despairingly, while the onion’s layers grow thinner and thinner until he’s left with nothing between his hands.
Some segments are weaker than others; Solveig, or Sabine’s song, albeit beautifully performed by Anya Chalotra, could do with a re-write, and why has Bøygen become The Boyg? The name of the character who advises Peter to ‘always go round the back’ and take the easy way out, would have benefitted from a more inventive translation. Still, it is no mean effort to triumph with a radical reinterpretation of Ibsen’s masterpiece. With a furious drive and high entertainment-factor, Peter Gynt readily succeeds in preserving the original’s themes of identity and responsibility. And in an age where everything is façade and we all seem preoccupied with being our own true selves and nothing else, it’s good to be reminded of how this is not originality, but troll-philosophy.
This review was first published in Norwegian in Norsk Shakespearetidsskrift