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FringeReview UK 2019

Low Down

Peter Gynt in David Hare’s new version of Peer Gynt for the National is directed by Jonathan Kent, designed by Richard Hudson, lit by Mark Henderson with music composed by Paul Englishby and directed by Kevin Amos, with sound design by Christopher Shutt. Movement’s by Polly Bennett, video design by Dick Straker – with illusions by Chris Fisher – and fight direction by Paul Benzing.


A post-truth Peter in James McArdle’s whirligig performance – that brings in time’s revenges – is what keeps you riveted for three-and-a-half hours. Peter, not Peer Gynt in David Hare’s new version for the National. A bit like a centrifuge McArdle spins his own epic anti-gravity on the Olivier stage.


When you recall McArdle‘s stand-out turn as the eponymous anti-hero in the Young Chekhov season’s Plotonov (Chichester and National), you realize here the young Chekhov’s play had Gynt-ism scribbled all over its DNA. Who but McArdle could take this on, cornering personas with an amiable-roguish addiction to fantasy, sex and self? Billy Liar meets Russell Brand meets Mac the Knife (just witness his letting a cook drown). And this is 21st century Dunoon, Peter a returning Scottish soldier with tales to tell. Rarely has three-and-a-half hours passed so quickly, especially in the company of this fantasist.


Hare takes on Ibsen’s intractable verse-play that burst onto the scene in 1867, at least in print. Its premiere was delayed till 1876 (in Copenhagen) and London didn’t see it till 1911. Ex-theatre manager Ibsen hadn’t intended to stage it at all. Its lop-sided picaresque needs the energy-swirl and staging that Ibsen’s 1873 Emperor and Galilean received here in 2011 (as here helmed by Jonathan Kent), though Gynt always has it over Emperor Julian for allure. And it’s a bit nearer a masterpiece.


Hare’s adaptation has to free-wheel too. It’s faithful to the sheer excess that makes Act Four a trudge through the desert too far, but allows Hare swipes at anything from Trumpist corporates, the power of yes-men to worm-turn, and memorable one-liners.


Especially Hare takes care with Peter’s fictions of himself: soldier who transaprently riffs on the plot of Guns of Navarone (and the rest) through mogul through false prophet through travelling seeker and philosopher.


Hare’s good at pinpointing Peter’s early philosophy too: second-hand from the Troll-king earlier ‘To thine own self be true – and damn the rest of the world.’ Hare’s now turned that to ‘I like to think I’ve been true to myself.’ Only the later Ibsen caveat is tellingly missing. ‘To thy own self be enough.’ The whole fable of rampant individualism versus new societal forces play out a century before Greed is Good was ever invented. The satire in Act Four can be relished. Yet it’s the intimate exchanges elsewhere, also faithful in detail where Hare scores.


There’s penitent Peter returning at the close of Act Three to his scolding mother (acerbically warm Ann Louise Ross) ironically calming her with the fantasy she always detested, but not before she commands a funeral playlist involving a Building-a-Library critique of Strauss’s Four Last Songs version. Jessye Norman’s too sentimental, Renée Fleming does her best but it’s Schwarzkopf every time. No moderate soprano here, Hare indulging himself scores beautifully.


As he does even closer to the original in Act Five confronting Oliver Ford Davies’ Button Moulder, with his uproarious calm here hushing the auditorium. It’s a treasurable performance, and overwhelmingly moving when combined with Anya Chalotra’s touching clear-headed Sabine (aka Solveig) at the close as Ford Davies looms over her and McArdle cradled in her arms. If it wasn’t for Act Four – yet it’s necessarily here the team scores their inventive top.


Peter Gynt, directed by Jonathan Kent with epic ambition, takes in Richard Hudson’s design. It bifurcates the Olivier with stage-right a cropped glen-bright-green touched purple with heather, that – differently lit by Mark Henderson – turns golf-course and even treacherous sea. The other side’s by turns vertiginous cliff and murky caves from which imagination (trolls) and salvation (Sabine) dwell cheek-by-jowl. It springs amongst other things a troll’s banqueting table with lit candelabras.


Behind looms a whelming video design by Dick Straker – with illusions by Chris Fisher on a board – turning from cloud-scudding of realist and fantasy kinds, cliff-high waves, deeps of desert sky. Out of the other side’s sky doors open to admit the backdrop of Sabine’s Greenock bookshop, a madmen resembling Gynt, cowgirls and other dreams. There’s a central door with ladder too.


The haunting music’s composed by Paul Englishby and directed by Kevin Amos. Its finest feature is a solo by Chalotra’s Sabine. Sound design’s by Christopher Shutt, movement’s by Polly Bennett, and fight direction by Paul Benzing.


Hare also solves the troll-problem, twisting these shapes over a recumbent Peter as the dream one (McArdle naturally) cavorts in a Goyaesque masque with Jonathan Coy’s Bertram the Troll king (Coy appears in several guises) and more so with his Green Woman daughter, one of Tamsin Carroll’s incarnations – she’s also tricksy Anitra who cozens Peter in the desert of Act Four. And their son Sonnyboy Skelton. There’s fine work too from Nabil Shaban’s Boyg popping up and the more relist dupes of Peter: Caroline Deyga’s kidnapped bride Ingrid, Lorne MacFayden’s vengeful Duncan, Martin Quinn’s Ingrid-bereft-Spudface.


There’s also places where Hare and Hudson go awry. The turning of the three herders to cavorting Cowgirls is meant to be proleptic of what happens in Act Four: all Vegas-like Americana. It jars. Better leave the first three acts (and the last) to northern realism and (here dream-rendered) folk-fantasy. Hare though scores in the Act Four madmen scene curated by Coy again as Begriffenfeldt, where all Peter’s desires are as it were trolled out in versions of himself, including a dimly David Cameron-like figure with another dreaming on whiteness and another would-be-suicide.


Perhaps a more rigorously faithful version might capture more of Ibsen’s lyrical disillusion, his salty period sallies. But that might lose in energy. The fault’s still mainly Ibsen’s and this is still a masterpiece of the mind (I’d still lose parts of Act Four). In grounding its billowing fantasy Hare’s tethered it for a decade or more. And in McArdle’s irresistible performance you’re not likely to see a finer Gynt.