Review: Peter Gynt, National Theatre

Can money swing a show? It’s a real worry in this business. Does having a large, famous cast set against an expensive or moving set always guarantee to impress? It’s an interesting question, one that The National’s recent reincarnation of Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt provides a partial answer too (in the negative).

Bringing in the heavy-hitters – starring James McArdle with script by David Hare and compositions by Paul Englishby – this production should combine these men’s considerable talent to create one of history’s most famous plays. However, what comes across most is a lack of editing. The length is a giveaway – unless it’s an opera or history play (and even then I’m not sure), three and a half hours is an overambitious running time when expecting to keep the attention of your audience. When it’s a surrealist piece, you must be joking.

The concept is rocky, though I understand the importance of recreating such a famous tale as Peer Gynt. The original boy who cried wolf, this story of the didactic perils of lying has been set in almost every place and time period possible. Yes, classics must evolve, but that doesn’t mean that every attempt is equal. Musically it is a mess, with Englishby’s songs erring on the simplistic side. Again this is an example of our earlier question: yes, you can have a clump of (very bored) musicians sit perfectly still through the majority of the show, weighing in for only three or four lacklustre songs, but why?

Obviously, this is not one of Hare’s best or brightest works. Bogged down with constant moral philosophising, the show is amusing but never develops further than an elementary deconstruction of self, or the rather transparent shots levelled at modern life. Ultimately, its repetitive message scuppers this show on rocks of its own making.

Peer Gynt is asking too much of even Hare’s prodigious talent – all the money in the world would be unlikely to create a total success. That is not to say that there is no hope for the production, as some of the recontextualising works rather well. Setting the piece in Scotland adds a comic and refreshing dimension. McArdle gives energy and charisma to the eponymous role, bringing relative complexity to the two-dimensional antihero. Though, even for this seasoned professional, it seems that the onstage marathon takes its toll. Anna Louise Ross, Guy Henry and Oliver Ford Davies add spice to the supporting roles and overall, the cast does well to navigate the text. However, with a set that is expensive, impressive but restrictive, the troupe are fighting a losing battle.

Peter Gynt is trying to be everything (comedy, tragedy, surrealistic, moralistic, realistic and tiresomely clever) and as with most attempts like this, fails at doing anything particularly well. Perhaps the fact that Ibsen never again attempted to write another play in verse should have been heeded. Here, the pursuit of novelty is is commendable, but the sheer volume of confused, sporadic creative choices makes for an uncomfortable evening and a disappointing experience.

Peter Gynt is playing the National Theatre until 8 October. For more information and tickets, see the National Theatre website.