Peer Gynt @ Barbican, London

directed by
Dominic Hill
Riding high on their Olivier Award-winning Black Watch, this National Theatre of Scotland co-production, with Dundee Ensemble Rep, of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt is a welcome revival of their stunning 2007 show.

This radical reinterpretation of a poetic masterpiece often deemed unstageable is nothing short of a revelation.

Colin Teevan’s free adaptation takes the play away from any fey folksy Norwegian trappings to create a much more contemporary and earthy everyman story.
Full of foul-mouthed invective and raucous humour, it nonetheless preserves the mysteriously metaphysical spirit of the original tale of an adventurous dreamer who loses his sense of self in his ruthless pursuit of fame and fortune.

Deserting his exasperated but loving mother Aase, the young Peer gatecrashes a country-and-western-style wedding reception where he gets into a drunken fight with local yobs, falls in love with the pure Solveig but elopes with the bride Ingrid, whom he promptly dumps. Following a one-night stand with three Mountain Girl harpies, he is taken off on a quad bike to marry the Woman in Green, the hideous daughter of the King of the Trolls, a wheelchair-bound King Bastard, whose empire he wants to inherit.

After ducking out of a vicious initiation ceremony designed to bring him down to their bestial level, Peer again encounters Solveig but their budding domestic bliss in a caravan is interrupted by the return of the Woman in Green and her ‘ugly child’ she claims is his. He runs home for a moving reunion with the dying Aase, then goes ‘Away to fuck across the sea’.

We next see the middle-aged Peer, now a successful trader profiting from other people’s misery, in Africa being interviewed by a journalist, boasting about his self-made status and revelling in his notorious celebrity. After losing his riches in a civil war he tries to regain power as a guru, but ends up in a lunatic asylum, as deluded as the other inmates who mockingly reprise his own former football-style chant: ‘Peer Gynt you’re the fucking emperor!’

Flying back home on a budget-airline, which goes into free fall, he wards off a ghostly passenger who wants his corpse and survives by forcibly taking someone else’s oxygen mask. Following a vision of his own funeral, he persuades the diabolical Buttonman to give him another chance of redemption before death.

Peer is presented as a working-class anti-hero, a young, drunken, womanizing brawler with the vision of a poet a Scottish Dylan Thomas if you like who is determined to escape the small community in which he is a social outcast and make something of his life but who forfeits his soul in so doing, in an almost Faustian-like allegory.

Dominic Hill’s superbly inventive production gives full rein to the wildly mythic imagination of Peer’s world but is rooted in a recognizably modern urban environment. In Act One, Naomi Wilkinson’s freewheeling design features a mountain fjord backdrop, which later gives way to palm trees, while a metal staircase at the back is put to good use for dramatic entrances and exits. Paddy Cunneen’s eclectic score is an integral part of the show, as it moves from corny C&W to aggressive punk and finally a heart-melting lullaby.

The 20-strong cast bring a full-blooded commitment to their roles. As Young Peer, Keith Fleming gives an outstanding performance in making us care so much about this self-pitying, compulsive liar/fantasist who abandons those who love him for misguided ambition. Gerry Mulgrew is also excellent as Old Peer, showing how overweening arrogance leads to mental unbalance and spiritual emptiness, demonstrated in the famous stripping away of the onion layers to reveal a hollow centre. Ann Louise Ross makes a feistily forthright Aase, while Ashley Smith is a touchingly faithful Solveig.

The play itself is preceded by a short, riotously funny wedding gig in the mezzanine foyer, before the show moves into the theatre. After three hours you feel you have accompanied Peer on an epic journey but because the experience is so entertaining the result in not tiredness but exhilaration. Don’t miss.

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