I approach an evening of Peter Gynt at The National somewhat nervously. A quick scan of the play’s webpage informs me of this production’s reliance on movement and music – not always my cup of tea – and, that two intervals are required to apportion this 3hr 20min behemoth into manageable servings. When the lights rise for the first interval, I can’t believe 90 minutes have passed. This is in no small part down to the lively, engrossing performance of James McArdle in the title role. Guiding and beguiling us through a thick Scottish twang, the play sets off at an incredible pace, devouring stories and settings – but the magnetism of Peter keeps us engrossed.
When Ibsen wrote Peer Gynt in 1867, he didn’t ever intend for it to be performed – merely read. Indeed, so much of the struggle with this play over the years has been how to manifest it on stage, given that the plot encompasses a journey through mountains and deserts, visiting the Sphinx and the States. Hare’s production achieves a remarkable weaving together of dream states and we are transfixed by Peter bounding from controversy to controversy as the production makes full use of the Olivier’s expansive stage and set budget. The first act especially exists in a kind of ephemeral, malleable spin of Gynt’s adventures that perfectly encapsulates the man himself.
At the outset it is clear that whilst this play has been dragged into a modern context it’s theme is familiar and universal: the stories we tell ourselves both make up and mask the core of who we are. Gynt, full of bluster from a war where he has sought the bubble reputation, but not necessarily in the cannon’s mouth, proclaims that, “People don’t have lives anymore, they have stories”. And there are many occasions when this fits easily into the groove of contemporary social commentary, that we are obsessed with social image, with instagram stories over lived experiences, where we “can’t tell truth from lies”. At times, this commentary teeters over into played-out territory; it is most effective when it takes a back seat in the undercurrents of the story.
And then there is the pure parody. The second session is proudly sponsored by ‘Gynt Industries’ and depicts a familiar-feeling golf course-owning businessman who boasts of wanting to rule the world. All the while Peter Gynt espouses his ideology of “being himself”, transitioning from business leader to guru and rarely leaving the centre of attention. The satire reaches a belly-laughing peak as he doses out wisdom to politicos gathered at ‘Davos in the Desert’.
The final act really showcases McArdle’s range and slows the pace of the play down, allowing the audience to breathe and extract some meaning from the earlier freneticism. It’s a strong finish that really gets to grips with the role stories play in our lives and experiences.
David Hare should be credited for taking this massive play – this winding myth – and effectively transposing it into modern setting and language without neglecting the verse Peter Gynt is rooted in. But the real triumph is that it’s properly gripping. It’s self-aware enough to laugh at itself and tease at modern commentary but also land upon genuinely heartfelt moments; Peter cradling his moribund mother being particularly moving. This is only possible through a truly uncompromising performance from McArdle – it wouldn’t be Peter Gynt if he didn’t steal his own show.
Images © Manuel Harlan