‘Peter Gynt’ review
Time Out says
Some good jokes and a brilliant turn from James McArdle can’t patch up David Hare’s exhausting Ibsen update
Grand old institution though it is, on a sunny day the National Theatre’s repertoire can still look obscenely fresh and youthful. But it does have at least one portrait mouldering away in its attic. And by ‘portrait’ I mean the increasingly trying works of the playwright David Hare. And by ‘attic’ I mean the theatre at the top of the building, the 1,100-seat Olivier, where it sometimes seems Hare would keep getting programmed if all life on the planet were wiped out.
I am being a bit unfair: as well as being one of the great writers of the late twentieth century, in some respects Hare’s chief crime is being masochistic enough to regularly take on the cavernous Olivier, perhaps the most difficult stage in the entire country. Nonetheless, there is very little about ‘Peter Gynt’ – his craftily-titled new version of Ibsen’s ‘Peer Gynt’ – that really screams ‘necessary’. His version underscores how goofy the original was, without really finding a raison d’être for a 2019 incarnation.
There are good things about Jonathan Kent’s production. In the title role, James McArdle is a megaton bomb of an actor. Still only 30 years old, this is his sixth play on the Olivier stage and he effortlessly owns it as swaggering dickhead Gynt, who goes from almost-loveable fantasist to very-hatable capitalist to embittered old douchebag over the course of the play’s titanic three-and-a-half hours.
Richard Hudson’s lurid, slightly queasy forced-perspective set designs are pretty cool, as Gynt journeys from his homeland of Scotland – where he’s a smalltime joke – on through to everywhere from an underground troll kingdom to the pyramids of Egypt.
And to be fair, the text contains a lot of disarmingly witty lines – honestly, who would have guessed that Sir David had heard of the Nando’s Black Card?
But for all the fleeting LOLs, he’s not wrestled Ibsen’s rambling fantasy into an emotionally coherent whole. Some of this can be attributed to the original: Gynt’s rambling allegorical quest really is Ibsen in full batshit mode. But still. While Hare has updated Ibsen’s lengthy satire on individualism with some stuff he wants to say about toxic masculinity, disaster capitalism and the like, he absolutely doesn’t have three-and-a-half hours of material on the subject.
In the first and strongest act, McArdle’s Gynt is a reasonably loveable fantasist whose incessant lying and total inability to commit to anyone or anything can perhaps be attributed to a wider crisis in his self-image as a man – he has been ruined by his inability to be comfortable with his own mediocrity.
It feels like the springboard for a great play, even if it’s mingled with some creepily misogynist stuff. It’s also fairly apparent that Hare is trying to be well-meaningly scathing about men, but making Gynt mountingly, eventually alienatingly, unpleasant doesn’t really help the time zip by.
In the second act, he has become a cynical, racist, ultra-capitalist, newspaper magnate-slash-arms dealer, and all traces of his old charm are pretty much gone. On to the final third, and he’s a deeply embittered man finally coming home to Scotland to grumpily have a reckoning about what it is he exactly did with his life.
The fact that ‘Peter Gynt’ often feels crass is maybe beside the point. It’s that it’s so glib it makes little emotional sense. It’s difficult to care about Gynt when he becomes a complete monster so quickly, and still less so when he sourly picks through the pieces of the life he left behind in the final section – even if his conversation with Death at the end is actually quite haunting considered in isolation.
But really Kent’s production coasts on McArdle’s brio and the lurid incidents of Gynt’s adventures. However, for all the bonkers interludes – did I mention that there’s a random smattering of musical numbers?!? – and McArdle’s brilliance, ‘Peter Gynt’ increasingly feels like a chore, and a smattering of good humour can’t conceal the play’s fundamental sour slogginess.