The Peter Unprinciple

David Hare after Henrik Ibsen, Peter Gynt (Directed by Jonathan Kent, Olivier Theatre, National Theatre)

Several things occurred to me whilst waiting for this play to start: the auditorium was not much more than half full; I probably hadn’t been here since the Dench/Hopkins Antony and Cleopatra; and I had no idea what this play was about.

Peter GyntI’d taken a copy of the play out of the library, but had decided not read it. I knew the Grieg incidental music and the Harald Sæverud suite, but that was it. Hare, I suppose best known for his political plays and films and television drama, has reimagined, and indeed renamed, the play. This seems to be a phase with Ibsen – there’s an India-set Doll’s House and one reimagined around Nora (I must book).

The setting is shifted – I assume shifted – to Scotland and possibly to the present day. Peter Gynt (James McArdle, who had been in Angels in America and Hare’s Salting the Battlefield and his version of Chekhov) is back from war – it is unclear which – and reunited with his mother (Ann Louise Ross). He tells her tales of his bravery – which she recognises from The Gun of Navarone – and she tells him that his girlfriend Ingrid is about to get married. Determined to stop this, he seduces her after trying to seduce a refugee Sabine (Anya Chalotra). For reasons that need not detain us, he has a fourway with cowgirls and enters the kingdom of the Troll King, whilst trying to escape angry villagers. And so he escapes to Florida to become a billionaire, leaving the woman he loves behind him, before everything will come crashing down.

The plot is thus somewhere between linear and shapeless. It is one damn vignette after another, each to be fair pleasing. He is a Walter Mitty figure and it is not at all clear that the encounter with the Bullingdon Club style trolls is real or imagined; he perhaps sees himself as a Job figure, thrown a series of misfortunes, but there’s also a bit of Faust/Faustus in there as fate will catch up. Gynt isn’t on stage for the whole three hours, but he’s there for a good percentage of it – and it doesn’t help that he’s thoroughly unpleasant. McArdle is astounding in his energy.

Looking at the print version, there’s a discussion of Epic Gynt (which I haven’t read). Is this a precursor to Brecht’s epic theatre – there are musical interludes and song and dance, and the action shifts between Scotland and the underworld, Florida and Egypt, with a series of cameos. Gynt is searching for himself, trying to figure out his motto, “To thine own self be true and damn the rest.”

Hamlet, innit. Polonius, to be precise, and possibly no good can come of that.

He wants to be thought the best and he wants all the money, and he is ruthless in business, even suggesting a cynical war to make money out of arms. He forgets those that love him, even as he wants to be loved. He is without principle.

The mechanics of the theatre are perhaps too complex to be Brechtian – we have a series of forests, hillsides, skyscapes and seascapes. Characters are driven on stage on the back of trucks or climb steps into the sky. It is repeatedly visually arresting.

There are moments of comedy and satire – most notably a version of David Cameron, freshly timely in the wake of his autobiography. There is the grotesquery of the trolls – and perhaps it is a relief we avoid the contemporary meaning of the term. But it does feel very long, and I think we get the point long before the end. We know that the trolls’ motto is a Proverb of Hell, and the two women we are allowed to care for know what one should be true to, even if they are perhaps foolish for doing so. But I suspect much of the fault lies in Ibsen, not helped by the need to update the politics from a critique of mid-nineteenth century Norway – it was written the year that Das Kapital was published – to British oligarchs.

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