The Big I Am review – updated Ibsen epic is a white-knuckle ride

Everyman, Liverpool
With a cacophonous cast of characters, Robert Farquhar’s new take on Peer Gynt dashes through the second half of the 20th century

The spirit of ensemble, an idea at the heart of Liverpool’s Everyman company, is set loose in the final show of its 2018 season. While it might seem to be about one man, Robert Farquhar’s new take on Peer Gynt is at its best when filling the stage with an eccentric and cacophonous cast of characters.

The Big I Am is, perhaps paradoxically, an ensemble piece about egoism. Farquhar has relocated Ibsen’s strange, folkloric epic to the recent past, casting its roaming protagonist as a child of the second world war. In this white-knuckle dash through the second half of the 20th century, Gynt’s narcissistic soul-searching becomes emblematic of the age of the individual. When others say, “Suit yourself”, Gynt responds with, “What else is there?” From the free love of the 60s and 70s to the unbridled materialism of the 80s and 90s, Farquhar suggests phoney self-realisation has become our new religion and we, in Gynt’s words, are “the new gods”.

Farquhar’s reimagining is as wild and unwieldy as Ibsen’s original. It moves restlessly between locations and planes of reality, snapping suddenly from domestic scene to swirling dream world. Director Nick Bagnall meets this challenge with gusto and ingenuity, dynamically shifting the cast of 14 – not to mention an ever-changing series of props and set pieces – across the open, in-the-round space. The frenetic movement of the production mirrors the twitchy impatience of Gynt’s life – a constant, commitment-phobic parade of people and places. It is also an opportunity for the company to show off their impressive versatility, as they whirl through wigs, costumes and accents at a rate of knots.

Nathan McMullen as Peer Gynt in The Big I Am at the Liverpool Everyman
Nathan McMullen as Peer Gynt in The Big I Am. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

But the play, like its protagonist, is in the midst of an identity crisis. It’s as though Farquhar is torn between playfully experimenting with the mythic elements of Ibsen’s script and imposing an earnest contemporary message on it. When embracing the odd and the theatrical, it’s a thrilling ride, but Farquhar also reaches for the profundity that forever eludes his central character. There is an insistent point being made about existence and meaning, and what we do with our short time on this planet, though it never really takes flight. The revelation that God is dead, replaced by the idols of money and self-worship, is hardly novel.

It is also hard to have much sympathy for Gynt, a reckless womaniser turned callous profiteer. As we increasingly question the power and veneration afforded to “great” men, this Gynt (played through the stages of his life by Nathan McMullen, Liam Tobin and Richard Bremmer) feels both dated and timely. His casual misogyny and blinkered pursuit of glory belong to an age that is beginning, in some ways, to wane. Although when Gynt wants to slap his name across the hulking, phallic structure of a luxury hotel, it immediately recalls Trump, suggesting that we have some way to go before we shake off the myth of the great – and invariably male – self-made individual.

Particularly in the closing third, this tangle of ideas struggles to hold together. It’s a problem as much with Ibsen’s play as it is with Farquhar’s updating, which shares the same strangeness and confusion. As a demonstration of what this company can do, though, it’s an ambitious end to a varied season.

• At the Everyman, Liverpool, until 14 July.


Catherine Love

The GuardianTramp

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