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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Peter Gynt
Olivier Theatre    Summer 2019

David Hare has updated Ibsen's sprawling poetic and philosophical drama Peer Gynt to the modern day.

It is not a task that was crying out to be done, and despite some effective scenes and a marathon performance by the hardly-ever-offstage James McArdle, it is pretty heavy going.

Ibsen's play, to oversimplify, begins when young fantasist Peer Gynt is told to be himself. He sets off on a quest to find himself, which in his terms involves a lot of indulging himself.

He seduces and abandons women, has encounters with supernatural beings, makes and loses a fortune, is hailed and then rejected as a prophet, and survives a shipwreck.

In the end he has to face the realisation that he never really had a self to find and isn't even enough of a sinner to be damned, and must take what comfort is available in the love and forgiveness of the woman he abandoned back in Act One.

David Hare's updating consists largely of peppering the script with joking modern references and sight gags like turning some cowmaids from the original into line-dancing cowgirls and Ibsen's subhuman trolls into a boorish millionaires' club.

The play's structure is still almost randomly episodic, so that except for Peter himself very few characters last more than one scene.

Meanwhile the central philosophical questions of Ibsen's play just what the self is, how one finds it and what to do with it once it is found are not presented any more clearly or brought more dramatically alive than in the original.

What there is in Jonathan Kent's production is a handful of scenes that stand by themselves as both thought-provoking and emotion-inspiring.

The first of the three acts of this version ends with Peter having a momentary lapse in his self-absorption and movingly guiding his dying mother through her final moments.

And the entire last half-hour of the play, when Peter is brought face-to-face with his own emptiness and irrelevance, will grip you in a way little that came before was able to.

Apart from the marathon nature of his performance, James McArdle deserves credit for maintaining a sense of a core character in Peter even as the man's external situations change from scene to scene.

Ann Louise Ross is strong as Peter's scolding mother and touching as the dying woman, and in spite of being offstage through most of the night Anya Chalotra creates and sustains a sense of the girl he left behind.

Oliver Ford Davis sits in his dressing room for almost three hours before effortlessly creating a strong effect as the button moulder who forces Peter to see his own emptiness.

The nearly three and a half hours do not fly by, and the few strong scenes are not quite enough.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Peter Gynt - National Theatre 2019
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