Peter Gynt  – National Theatre, London

Writer: David Hare (after Henrik Ibsen)

Director: Jonathan Kent

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

The search for self may seem like a post-1960s obsession as the rise of individualism dominates society in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, but Ibsen’s 1867 verse-play Peer Gynt was way ahead of the curve, creating a protagonist who wanders the earth living by his own rules. Understandably perhaps, political writer David Hare has found resonance in our age of obsessive social media, image culture and shallow online narratives in which to situate his “free” adaptation Peter Gyntopening at the National Theatre.

Peter returns from an unspecified war to his Scottish home where his outlandish stories frustrate friends and family. Discovering his ex-girlfriend is to marry another man, Peter heads out to stop the wedding but finds himself on darker path into the woods and beyond, As he encounters trolls, hyenas and golfing partnerships Peter’s journey of self-discovery may not be quite as fulfilling as he hoped.

“To thine own self be true” Polonius famously advised his son on setting off for university, and it is this quote which echoes through Hare’s adaptation, railing against faith, society, politics and the failure of the individual in equal measure. Adapting Ibsen’s mystical curio is no easy task, and it is a play that requires geographical as well as imaginative leaps, as reality, dreams and subconscious elements blend together. This early play continues to divide opinion with its many stylistic challenges and a far cry from the psychological complexity of his later works

The structure of Peter Gynt is all Ibsen, and Hare has remained relatively faithful to the key incidents of the plot, but there is a fine line between epic and rambling, and at close to 3.5 hours it tends toward the latter. Hare has modernised the language and littered the play with pop culture references but can never quite decide how real he wants Peter Gynt’s world to be – it never feels like our own world reflected back at us, nor is the setting heightened enough to suggest the elaborate metaphors of Ibsen’s original.

The 85-minutes of Act One are particularly unfocused as Peter’s ties to his home are fully severed but despite meeting the locals, his mum and some selfish trolls who try to recruit him, we move from scenario to scenario without any proper emotional connection to Peter or those he hurts. With the brief Act Two presented almost entirely as a garish musical set in Florida and African, and Act Three a dour Dickensian reckoning as Peter faces his choices, director Jonathan Kent struggles to convey these variable tone changes or fully knit together the episodic nature of the story.

Hare’s writing often lacks subtly with plenty of on the nose political monologues about Prime Ministers being out of touch with voters who love them anyway, that “terrorism is war by the poor” in reference to the Middle East, the arrival of a non-local family with the announcement “I’m an immigrant” (as though anyone would use that word about themselves. Even the trolls are presented as generic Bullingdon Club-like posh men in tails with pig snouts. It’s a tad patronising about the assumed vanity of the social-media generation scrabbling for stories to make themselves interesting, and despite being a modern reworking, Hare fails to reposition the role of women in the story who remain two-dimensional sirens desperate to lure Peter into their honeytrap.

The one thing that holds the show together is James McArdle’s impressive central performance that takes a disparate and occasionally clunky exposition-laden script and navigates the extremes of Peter’s character. McArdle finds layers of arrogance, entitlement and self-absorption, but as the play unfolds there is also bitterness, regret, even a touch of humility, charting the erosion of Peter’s personality by this endless and fruitless quest for self-knowledge – if only he hadn’t been asked to peel a real onion in the final scene to hammer home that reference.

The relationship with Sabine (a self-conscious Anya Chalotra) that offers Peter one chance for redemption also plays out rather unconvincingly after he presses his luck too far. The idea that she would then pine for a man who practically assaults her for decades after is symptomatic of the lack of female perspective in the play which not even Peter’s Mother Agatha (Ann Louise Ross) can rectify.

There’s an interesting stage design from Richard Hudson working with Dick Straker’s video to create some memorable scenes particular in the sea-based opener to Act Three, but unfortunately the curse of the Olivier has returned, and this heavy-handed approach to Ibsen’s fantasist morality tale too often feels that both Peter and the audience are on a hiding to nothing. A message to the playwright in his own hand then, as Sabine asserts in Act One: “You can be better than this.”

Runs until:  8 October 2019 | Image: Manuel Harlan

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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