Peer Gynt at the National Theatre review ****

Peer Gynt

National Theatre Olivier, 1st October 2019

I know what I need. A bit more Ibsen. There are reasons why theatre-makers keep returning to the master and the slew of high profile productions in London this year alone is a reminder of why. I would probably plump for Ian Rickson’s Rosmersholm as the best of the bunch but there have been others that have captured the great playwright’s unique cocktail of thrilling drama, scathing political and moral critique and meticulous psychological insight.

Right now I crave a John Gabriel Borkman, a play that I have never seen and which I gather offers a challenge to directors in reconciling its melodramatic, symbolic final act to the realism of what has proceeded it. I don’t suppose I will have to wait too long though. In the meantime Peer Gynt, the romance, fantasy, epic, modernist mix of surrealism, poetry, naturalism and confessional, written in Danish verse over five acts, that has been challenging and delighting theatre makers and audiences since it first tore up the rule book in 1867. The last time I saw it was at the Arcola in Theatre an der Ruhr inventive two hander in German, (yep, I know what you are thinking). This could hardly be more different. The full resources of the Edinburgh Festival and National Theatre on the Olivier stage in a new, free adaptation by David Hare (with byline after Henrik Ibsen), directed by the venerable Jonathan Kent with sets and costumes from opera whizz Richard Hudson and with a cast of 25 led by James McArdle.

I confess I am still feeling my way into Peer Gynt and I recognise that David Hare here, whilst sticking closely to Ibsen’s plot, materially updated its content to satirise contemporary issues. I guess we should have expected nothing less from Mr Hare and his gift for the elegant, incisive and amusing turn of phrase remained undimmed. There are times when the exact target of Mr Hare’s ire became a little confused and/or indulgent but generally this is a text to savour.

Peer Gynt is a fantasist who creates his own narratives, his own view of his self, which, it turns out, is a long way from the reality even when he “succeeds”as well as when he “fails”. Pretty easy then to see why Mr Hare and Mr Kent would be attracted to this story of a life built on vacillation, invention and entitlement in our digital world of self-obsession and distortion at both the individual and societal level. As Ibsen trenchantly observed “if you lie, are you real?”. And the message of Peer, here Peter, Gynt is, if you are going to make stuff up and avoid knuckling down, go big. Who knows where you may end up. POTUS even? After all the play itself has generated its own reality with an annual festival, a sculpture park, a prize for best Norwegian thing of the year, numerous films, TV presentations, ballets, operas, musicals, Greig’s music and innumerable professional and amateur productions.

McArdle’s Gynt is a demobbed soldier returning to his Scottish village of Dunoon recounting tales of his bravery that bear and uncanny resemblance to seminal scenes from war movies. His Mum, Ann Louise Ross, puts up with his nonsense but the villagers, as we see at the wedding, are less forgiving. He kidnaps the bride, falls for Sabine (Anya Chalotra), a kind young immigrant woman, is banished, meets some line dancing cowgirls (Lauren Ellis-Steele, Hannah Visocchi, Dani Heron), gets shit-faced, bangs his head, dreams of a troll king (Jonathan Coy) and fathering a child with a his daughter (Tamsin Carroll), meets a gnomic chap called the Boyg (Nabil Shaban), wakes up, rejects a life with the faithful Sabine, movingly watches his Mum pass away, runs off, becomes an evil oligarch, a pilgrim, a fake guru and ends up chatting to the deranged inmates of an asylum. He heads for home, is shipwrecked, meets the aptly named Weird Passenger (Guy Henry) and finally has it out in the philosophical steakhouse with the Boyg and the learned Button-Moulder (Oliver Ford Davies), who teaches him the fundamental difference between self-absorption and self-realisation.

A revamped dream sequence, an inordinate amount of innovation from Richard Hudson, Mark Henderson (lighting), Christopher Shutt (sound), Polly Bennett (movement), Dick Straker (video), Paul Benzing (fight), Chris Fisher (illusions), and all their colleagues, original composition from Paul Englishby and musicians led by Kevin Amos, the discipline imposed by Mr Kent, a couple of intervals and a willing audience all pulled together to make this happen. Was it worth it? For me yes. I am not entirely sure if this Peer Gynt’s reach exceeds its grasp, (come to think of it that is sort of PG himself’s problem), but, thanks to largely to Mr Hare’s script and Mr McArdle’s brobdingnagian performance, (see what I have done there, referencing Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, another genre-bending fantasy satire to which novelists still look today), I now know what Ibsen was trying to tell us. And, as importantly , I spent 3.5 hours immersed in a bloody good yarn.

Which I see is not an opinion shared by many of the critics who variously seem to have had it in for Mr Hare, the production, the play, the set and the direction. Oh well. It takes all sorts.

Angels in America at the National Theatre review *****

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Angels in America: Part One Millennium Approaches and Part Two Perestroika

National Theatre, 29th July 2017

That Tony Kushner is an ambitious playwright. This will comes as no surprise to you experienced theatre lovers but, having seen this and The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures at the Hampstead Theatre last year, this has come as a revelation to this newbie.

Ostensibly Angels in America is a play about the impact of HIV/AIDS on a handful of characters beginning in mid 1980s New York and the denials that dominate their lives. Into this Mr Kushner weaves an examination of religion (specifically Mormonism and Judaism) and personal salvation, the rise of economic neo-liberalism and fall of communism, national, personal and sexual identity, the nature of responsibility and even the march of history itself – fin de siecle anyone?. The characters generally don’t do much in the way of small talk, yet all the exposition is punctured by genuinely funny humour. These people do not lack self awareness, that’s for sure.

Part One generally remains within the bounds of the naturalistic, Part Two goes into metaphysical overdrive as the curiously ineffectual angels (who themselves have been deserted by God) start to pile up. If I am honest it is all a bit nuts at times but the points that Mr Kushner wants to make more than justify the formal experimentation. And he does make a lot of points as I said. Sometimes repeatedly and with no let up in the erudition.

Now you might think the thick end of 8 hours of this, for those of us who opted for the one day experience, might turn into too much of a good thing. I have to say though that, with the exception of a few longueurs, you would be wrong. Mr Kushner’s writing creates, in me at least, a kind of heightened perception of the themes he is exploring, whilst still delivering a story, or stories more precisely, with forward momentum, and characters that you can love (or hate) despite, or perhaps because of, their intensity. As with all very. very clever people, Mr Kushner is maybe occasionally guilty of mislaying the “less is more” filter but this is a small price to pay to be dazzled on this scale. And whilst the direct impact of HIV/AIDS may have changed in public discourse in the last three decades or so, the questions the play poses directly and indirectly are still painfully relevant.

As for the production, well it is brilliant. Marianne Elliot’s direction is faultless. Meticulous precision has been applied to the combination of Ian McNeil’s set, lighting, sound, and yes, even the angels, which means the rhythm of the play is never impeded. And the cast. OMG. I don’t think I have ever seen as many high level performances as in this production. Andrew Garfield is astonishing as Prior Walter whose campness turns to courage. If anything Nathan Lane is even better as Roy Cohn, whose denial of his illness is as aggressive as his delusional politics. This two performances alone would be enough to justify the ticket price but then you have James McArdle chiming in with an impeccable portrayal of Louis Ironson, Prior’s lover who is riddled with guilt and hypocrisy. And then you have Russell Tovey as Mormon Joseph Pitt whose sexual denial has to crack, and, maybe most memorably for me, Denise Gough, who takes the part of Harper Pitt. Joseph’s pained wife and turns it into triumphant release. On and then you have Susan Brown, Amanda Lawrence and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, lighting up the stage as they cover most of the remaining parts. Collectively this is acting of the highest order.

So you can see I liked it. A lot. Like I said it does sprawl a bit, and the brain did need a few minutes of time out across the hours, but this is what theatre is all about. So if you are a theatre luvvie stick it on your bucket list. If you are a philistine run a mile.