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Phil Willmott

Review PETER GYNT at the National Theatre

Peter Gynt - National Theatre This play is usually called Peer Gynt. It’s a rambling pageant of symbolism by Henrik Ibsen that, some people believe, he never intended to be staged. Never the less it’s so often produced it’s Norway’s most performed work. There’s even an annual festival dedicated to it.

And you can see why it holds an attraction to directors. There’s the unstageable nature of its epic structure that meanders over two continents and the oceans in between, spans a man’s lifetime and oscillates between the domestic and magic realism.

It’s the story of an anti-hero who alienates his rural Norwegian community (in this version recast as contemporary Scotland) with his lies and cruelty. So extreme is his behaviour that fleeing to the mountains he progresses from antagonising humans to grappling with trolls and mythic riddles. Then, when even this cannot satiate him, he pitches up in Africa, acquires and looses a fortune and wrestles with extremes of suffering, religion, and philosophy before encountering a personification of the devil during a shipwreck that carries him home to an end-of-life reckoning with his native land and mythology. Rare moments of “life size” humanity are provided by the love/hate relationship he has with his mother and a nice girl who pines for him even though he’s a sociopath.

It’s famously a long, tough evening in the theatre and so it proves again in this current version clocking in at nearly three and a half hours. On this occasion it feels particularly interminable because playwright David Hare, whose adaptation this is, tries to keep things peppy with topical jokey references to contemporary world politics that make blunt satirical points about obvious targets. The audience is so desperate for entertainment that they dutifully chuckle along at references to Nados, credit cards, Brexit supporters, current playwriting fads, Radio 3 magazine programmes and rich people who own golf courses. But you can tell no one’s heart is really in it.

The problem is that the central character doesn’t care about the consequences of his violence, misogyny, and exploitation so neither do we. By the time he reaches some kind of reckoning and self awareness, well over three hours have passed since we took our seats and we’re left praying that both Peter and ourselves will be released from our misery soon.

I hereby declare that I now never expect to see an engaging interpretation of this play. Tonight was the third time I’ve arrived hopeful at a production of it in the Olivier Theatre, each one was directed by a hero of mine, each one was an endurance test.

I suppose this attempt by adapter Hare and director Jonathan Kent isn’t any more tedious than Declan Declan Donnellan’s attempts at staging it, or the production Trevor Nunn took over during his time as Artistic Director of the National Theatre, when Conal Morrison walked out on his version.

The gigantic cardboard cut out-like set by Richard Hudson delivers a few moments of spectacle and bravo to James McArdle in the title role. It can’t be easy playing a character who barely changes, learns, grows or indeed leaves the stage, over such a long evening. He does however turn satisfyingly gruffer. He really deserved a standing ovation for his efforts at the curtain call last night but by that time everyone just wanted to go home.

I honestly don’t see why anyone would or should subject themselves to seeing this play.

Peter Gnt tickets