David Hare’s Radical Take On Ibsen’s Peer Gynt Satirises Contemporary Culture

Peter Gynt, National Theatre ★★★☆☆

David Hare’s Radical Take On Ibsen’s Peer Gynt Satirises Contemporary Culture Peter Gynt, National Theatre 3
Photo: Manuel Harlan

Henrik Ibsen’s epic allegorical verse drama Peer Gynt is a fascinating work but difficult to stage, with its 40 wide-ranging scenes playing fast and loose with reality and fantasy. David Hare may only have added a ‘t’ to the title, but his Peter Gynt is a freewheeling take on the original that uses the basic template of the story while dragging it into the 21st century.

Photo: Manuel Harlan

We journey with Peter from his humble background in Western Scotland, eloping with another man’s bride and abandoning the woman who loves him, to a Florida golf resort that is part of his gun-running business empire, to surviving a plane crash in the desert of North Africa where he's acclaimed as a prophet, just escaping drowning after his ship sinks and his eventual return to his home village where he confronts death. It’s a hell of a  trip through the anti-hero’s roller-coaster life, which struggles to make its episodic elements coherent.

Photo: Manuel Harlan

Hare has moved well away from Norwegian folklore to create a sprawling, hit-and-miss satire on contemporary society and politics. His main target is taken from the king of the trolls’ maxim, “To thine own self be true — and damn the rest of the world”. Peter follows his own whims — later being crowned as “Emperor of Self” by the mad keeper of an Egyptian lunatic asylum — but he confuses self-discovery with self-improvement.

Photo: Manuel Harlan

This is connected with Peter’s claim, “People don’t have lives anymore. They have stories.” As a serial fantasist, he is a legend in his own imagination but, as he discovers in the famous onion scene, once he has stripped off the layers there is nothing at its centre – like himself.

Photo: Manuel Harlan

With the same leading team behind the stunning Young Chekhov trilogy staged at the National Theatre in 2016, Peter Gynt is a fitfully entertaining, three-and-a-half-hour show using the full resources of the huge Olivier stage, with a 25-strong cast marshalled by Jonathan Kent. Richard Hudson’s spectacular landscape designs are backed by constantly changing video projections from Dick Straker, with music by Paul Englishby played by a live band.

Photo: Manuel Harlan

There is a strong central performance from James McArdle as Peter — making a great entrance by seemingly emerging from the clouds — who is not so much a poet-philosopher as a compulsive storyteller, as he changes from dreaming youth to middle-aged cynicism and despairing old age. There is some rare genuine pathos when he comforts his dying mother (a superbly down-to-earth Ann Louise Ross) by ‘conveying’ her to heaven. And there is fine support from Jonathan Coy as the corporate king of the trolls, Guy Henry as a diabolical weird passenger and Oliver Ford Davies as the Button Moulder who wants to melt down Peter’s mediocre soul.

Photo: Manuel Harlan

Peter Gynt , Olivier Theatre, National Theatre, Upper Ground, South Bank, SE1 9PX. Tickets £15-£88, until 8 October 2019.

Last Updated 14 July 2019