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Review: Peter Gynt, at National Theatre, Olivier

09 August, 2019 — By Howard Loxton

Peter Gynt is at the Olivier. Photo: Manuel Harlan

HENRIK Ibsen’s Peer Gynt is an episodic 150-year-old verse drama about a fantasist who spends his life seeking to be true to himself without really knowing what that means, and opportunistically reinventing himself in a succession of situations.

David Hare’s new version “after Ibsen” is a very free adaption with a modern setting but it closely follows the original storyline.

This is now a Scots Peter Gynt who, from a door in the sky, comes down to the family bothy claiming he’s been away doing something top secret with the army.

The lines he shoots sound convincing until you realise they are old film plots. After abducting a bride on her wedding day, and a drunk dream of pig-faced trolls at a Bullingdon-type banquet who give him the motto “Be yourself and the devil take the rest”, he cheers up his mother on her deathbed with a fantasy excursion. Then his life is laid out as he makes money, gains power, is himself swindled and has encounters with mysterious figures in incidents that range round the world from his Florida golf course to a Davos-type meeting in the desert. There’s a plane crash, a madhouse in Morocco and a shipwreck. Then he’s back to a girl whose been patiently waiting for him.

Its contemporary gloss includes some political references but ignores modern media self-presentation which, like the onion layers Peter peels away, leaves nothingness. Indeed, that’s the play’s problem. What is Ibsen really saying at its centre? Hare seems to simplify it to finding ourselves through how we treat others.

Jonathan Kent’s lively production brings out the humour and Richard Hudson’s stunning design keeps surprising, but it is James McArdle’s Peter that really holds the attention. For three-and-a-half hours he delivers a stunning performance with strong support from the company and especially Ann Louise Ross and Oliver Ford Davies.

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