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.


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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