'Peter Gynt': Theater Review

Manuel Harlan
James McArdle in 'Peter Gynt'
Rambunctious spectacle overstays its welcome.
10/8/2019

Playwright David Hare and director Jonathan Kent return to the scene of their acclaimed Young Chekhov season with a new version of Ibsen's fantastical satire, starring James McArdle.

Adapting Ibsen's most atypical major play, Peer Gynt, must be at once daunting and thrilling. Such are the Norwegian's shifts between realism and flights of fancy that he almost invites a free hand from all who follow; but with that freedom comes danger, because it's a combination that can easily go awry. 

And so it proves here. Playwright David Hare and director Jonathan Kent certainly attack the challenge with zest and some insight into the prescience of Ibsen's satire on the pitfalls of rampant individualism. But their tonal shifts often jar — it's a decidedly odd experience — and at three and a half hours, the moral of the story has been tiredly logged long before Peter Gynt's conclusion. 

Hare and Kent return to the scene of their triumphant 2016 Young Chekhov season, along with one of its stars, the brilliant young Scot James McArdle (Angels in America), who lends Peter the same waggish, whirlwind energy as he did Platonov. With "Peter" now hailing from Dunoon, the actor employs every entertaining curl and gnarl of his Scottish brogue to bring the self-deluded, outlandishly boastful egotist to life. It's a tour-de-force (and an endurance test, given he's onstage throughout) which holds the attention even as Peter's one-note personality and lack of self-awareness start to become wearing.

The son of a wastrel father, young Peter has no qualms about lying of his wartime exploits, even to his mother (Ann Louise Ross), who condemns him as a "serial fantasist with ADD." While his aim is to be exceptional, to be "king of the world," Peter doesn't feel the need to actually do anything to meet such lofty ambitions, comfortable in the knowledge that "if people believe you did something, you did it." Anyone addicted to the self-aggrandizing properties of social media or LinkedIn would do well to take note. 

Among the many things Peter lacks is charm. After being run out of Dunoon for amorous misdeeds, his fantasy life takes a greater hold. Somewhere in his unconscious he communes with trolls — whose aggressively selfish behavior would be cautionary if he were wiser — and a weird creature, the Boyg (Nabil Shaban), who advises him to "be true to yourself." Fatally, Peter interprets this as an invitation to indulge himself, to seek wealth and power, rather than a call to be his best self in the context of others. 

This anti-Everyman's globe-trotting journey of "self-realization" sees him lord it in Florida, as a businessman whose CV includes media mogul, golf course owner and arms dealer, before being undone by sheer clumsiness, and the African desert, where he is adopted as a prophet for only as long as it takes his disciples to fleece him. 

Despite the promise of an odyssey with an absorbing thematic arc, the satire is on a downward spiral. With Hare summoning bêtes noires from his theatrical heyday (Margaret Thatcher, Rupert Murdoch) and new ones such as David Cameron and Donald Trump, the humor feels limply obvious; a sort of Day-Glo set design makes Peter's more preening escapades feel rather twee. 

Kent and designer Richard Hudson fare better as the aging Gynt finally begins to realize he may have misjudged his life. There's surreal horror in the visualization of the madhouse in which he's crowned "emperor of the self," with multiple doppelgangers both on stage and in the back projection, and the scene aboard the storm-tossed ship is both beautifully crafted and thrilling.

It's in the closing scenes, too, that McArdle is able to bring another dimension to his portrayal, as Peter confronts the novel figure of The Button Moulder (Oliver Ford Davies), eager to melt down his worthless soul. Incidentally, the immortal Davies will take some audiences back to Hare's seminal state-of-the-nation trilogy in the early 1990s (Racing Demon, Murmuring Judges, The Absence of War), when the playwright's original writing was at its peak. 

Venue: The National Theatre, London
Cast: James McArdle, Tamsin Carroll, Anya Chalotra, Jonathan Coy, Oliver Ford Davies, Guy Henry, Ezra Faroque Kahn, Ann Louise Ross, Nabil Shaban
Playwright: David Hare, after Henrik Ibsen
Director: Jonathan Kent
Set and costume designer: Richard Hudson
Lighting designer: Mark Henderson
Music: Paul Englishby
Sound designer: Christopher Shutt
Presented by The National Theatre