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A CurtainUp Review
Spirit mean and nature wasteful,
it is rough to pay for your birth with the price of your life.
The National Theatre Ensemble has mounted an ambitious production of Ibsen's challenging five act play Peer Gynt, in a new translation by Frank McGuinness. It is an epic play with no fewer than three actors playing the part of Peer who, in McGuinness' words, is "Liar, blaggard, louse, drunk, violent, then shockingly, pitifully tender, mad as a tree, good, occasionally, to his mother, cracked about women, afraid of men, sorely needing his absent father, crazed with ambition, sick from failure, this creature I wouldn't let into my house…" I hope you got all that!
I found it a sprawling and unwieldy production, vast in its detail but not sufficiently engrossing to keep my attention for its three and a quarter hours. Certainly those who have only heard Greig's romantic music for the Peer Gynt Suite will be very disappointed, a bit like asking for a beef sandwich and then being given the whole cow. Although based on an actual person who lived in Norway at the turn of the nineteenth century, Ibsen also included some of his own life experiences in Peer Gynt. Ibsen's father was a financial disaster area and Ibsen himself fathered an illegitimate child by a servant girl when he was 18 and did little to support the child.
The story follows the illegitimate and harum scarum Peer as a youth (Chiwetel Ejiofor), in and out of scrapes in his home village where he lives with his long suffering mother Ase (Sorcha Cusack). His easy charm makes girls easily seduced. He meets some of the Trolls that live in the mountain, witnesses extreme debauchery there and gets embroiled with an (ugly and green) Troll princess (Susan Aderin). He sees the virtuous Solveig (Olwen Fouéré), is outlawed, builds a home for Solveig, doesn't seduce her and goes to seek his fortune after the death of his mother. Patrick O'Kane plays Peer #2, the adventurer who makes and loses fortunes in America, Africa and meets the captivating, dancing Anitra (Amanda Symonds) in Arabia. Returning home Peer #3 (Joseph Marcell) encounters The Button Maker (Ronald Pickup), the figure of death, but finds redemption through the love of his patient Solveig.
Looking at McGuinness' text, it is a work of great beauty, of poetry, but I could not concentrate on the words in this bloated production. I wondered about whether it would have made a better radio serial? It was running at just under four hours at the previews but thankfully had been trimmed by opening night. McGuinness sets it not in the Norwegian fjords but in rural Ireland for the first and last parts which is effective. It has obviously been an uphill learning curve for director and the cast (and for reviewers). The philosophy is not easy to follow, the point seems to be that Peer Gynt in developing his sense of self, discovers that he cannot stand alone, but using three actors to play him interferes with this process.
There are some good performances, many crowd scenes which are played with verve by an enthusiastic company of peasants. I did like both Chiwetel Ejiofor's charming wastrel and was very moved by Sorcha Cusack as his mother. Olwen Fouéré is recreating the role she played in Dublin and has exactly the right expression for the saintly Solveig.
The set is a mountain, built, as is this year's theme at the National, of old leather suitcases and packing cases which the young Peer scrambles over with the nimbleness of a mountain goat pursued by many of the large company. A small orchestra provides the original music with strains of Irish folk jigs and reels. Conall Morrison, although he is still billed as the director, left for health reasons to return to his native Ireland mid-production, leaving Trevor Nunn holding the Peer Gynt baby.