Peter Gynt review – David Hare brings modern madness to Ibsen's epic

Olivier, London
Hare updates Ibsen’s 1867 dramatic poem with wit and ingenuity, resulting in a sharp satire on contemporary mores

This play is credited as “by David Hare after Henrik Ibsen”. What that means, in practice, is that Hare sticks faithfully to the structure of Ibsen’s 1867 dramatic poem while radically updating the content. The result is a sharp satire on contemporary mores that yields an outstanding performance from James McArdle but that, revealingly, is at its most moving when it comes closest to Ibsen’s original.

You can see what prompted Hare to rewrite Ibsen. Peer Gynt exposes the fallacy of total dedication to self-fulfilment. In today’s world, as Hare’s Peter points out: “People don’t have lives any more – they have stories.” So, as a young Scottish soldier, he creates his own myth, filching narratives from all the war movies he has seen. The serial fantasist, however, turns into a restless fugitive when he abducts a young bride and later deserts a devoted immigrant, Sabine, who spies in him a potential for good. After that, Peter adopts numerous personae – buccaneering capitalist, spiritual seeker, false prophet – before returning to his native land to be confronted by his essential mediocrity and the hollowness of his fabulations.

At times, Hare strives too hard to echo Ibsen’s plot: folkloristic cattle-herders here turn into rhinestoned cowgirls who might have stepped out of a Las Vegas cabaret. But Hare solves the tricky problem of Peter’s encounter with the troll king (who urges him “To thine own self be true – and damn the rest of the world”) by turning it into a Hieronymus Bosch-like dream. Hare’s writing also takes off when Peter encounters, in an Egyptian asylum, various forms of contemporary lunacy, including a figure steeped in nostalgia for a lost world where passports were blue and “everyone was white”.

James McArdle and Marc Mackinnon in Peter Gynt at Olivier, London
James McArdle and Marc Mackinnon in Peter Gynt at Olivier, London. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

While Hare’s writing is full of wit and ingenuity, it is fascinating to see how at two precise moments the power of Ibsen’s play reasserts itself. One is the great scene where a penitent Peter seeks to comfort his dying mother on her passage to the next world: this is beautifully played by a tearful McArdle and a stoic Ann Louise Ross determining which recording of Strauss’s Four Last Songs she wants at her funeral. The other big moment is the returning Peter’s encounter with the Button Moulder whom Oliver Ford Davies invests with a transfixing stillness as he stresses the difference between self-discovery and self-improvement.

McArdle, on stage for most of the play’s three-and-a-half hours, impressively captures not just Peter’s progress from youth to age but also his tragic awareness of his own emptiness. In a large cast, there is striking support from Anya Chalotra as the faithful Sabine and Jonathan Coy as a square-snouted troll-king. Jonathan Kent’s production and Richard Hudson’s design virtuosically meet the demands of a text that transports us from Dunoon to a Trump-style golf-course, a Riyadh hotel, the sands near Giza and a storm-lashed ship. I’ve always thought there is something inordinate about Ibsen’s original play in which, fine though it is, the means feel disproportionate to the ends.

But Hare has fashioned from this unruly epic an intriguing new work that exposes the madness of a modern world where truth is subjective and everything is viewed through the narrow prism of self.

• At the Olivier, National Theatre, London, until 8 October.At the Festival theatre, Edinburgh, as part of the Edinburgh international festival, 1 - 10 August.

Contributor

Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Hedda Gabler review – Ruth Wilson lets loose Ibsen's demons
Ruth Wilson superbly conveys the desolation of Ibsen’s ahead-of-her-time aesthete in Ivo van Hove’s invigorating modern-dress version

Michael Billington

13, Dec, 2016 @11:40 AM

Article image
Behind the Beautiful Forevers review – a triumph for David Hare and Meera Syal
Meticulously detailing the endless grind of Mumbai slum life helps this spirited adaptation of Katherine Boo’s award-winning reportage avoid any danger of quaintness, writes Michael Billington

Michael Billington

19, Nov, 2014 @11:59 AM

Article image
The week in theatre: Tree; Invisible Cities; Peter Gynt – review
Tree is less exciting than the row about its authorship

Susannah Clapp

14, Jul, 2019 @7:00 AM

Article image
I'm Not Running review – David Hare's Labour play hits political bullseyes
Hare’s state-of-the-nation drama pricks the mind and is supported by strong performances but it lacks momentum

Michael Billington

10, Oct, 2018 @10:11 AM

Article image
David Hare: how I learned to love adaptation
Ibsen wanted his plays to be continually updated after his death. As his new version of The Master Builder opens, Hare reflects on the pain and pleasure of adaptation – and what he learned piecing Chekhov together in his garage

David Hare

23, Jan, 2016 @10:00 AM

Article image
Plenty review – David Hare's epic of despair has a Brexit echo
Rachael Stirling is excellent in Kate Hewitt’s invigorating production of a play about individual and national unease

Michael Billington

14, Jun, 2019 @11:46 AM

Article image
The Red Barn review – David Hare turns Simenon's stormy tale into a film noir
Hare’s adaptation of 1968 novel La Main features subtle performances from Mark Strong and Elizabeth Debicki, but the cinematic design upstages the drama

Michael Billington

18, Oct, 2016 @10:21 AM

Article image
Theatre review: Peer Gynt / Barbican, London

Barbican, London
While admiring its raucous vitality and ensemble swagger, Michael Billington finds problems in this updated version of Ibsen's classic

Michael Billington

03, May, 2009 @11:01 PM

Article image
The Master Builder review – Fiennes at the height of his powers
Ibsen’s play about an architect jealous of rivals and haunted by guilt presents a searing self-portrait for a magnetic actor

Michael Billington

04, Feb, 2016 @12:40 AM

Article image
David Hare wins PEN/Pinter prize
Playwright David Hare declared 'a worthy winner' of prize established by English PEN to celebrate the late Harold Pinter

Alison Flood

26, Aug, 2011 @4:30 PM