Peer Gynt, Barbican Theatre, London
Hail the king of the rogues
Thursday 07 May 2009
Deep in his cups, young Peer Gynt sees himself as a mercurial mountaineer, a scavenger of dreams and a consort of mythical creatures. Later in life, he recalls a career as a mogul of gigantic wealth who became an internationally renowned guru and finally a recluse in a madhouse; poet, prophet and celebrity, but finally a fraud, and a nobody.
Ibsen's poetic drama wields the perennial fascination of other "unperformable" great classics like Goethe's Faust or Shelley's The Cenci, but this tremendous revival from the Dundee Rep in collaboration with the National Theatre of Scotland finds a human, comprehensible way through the thickets and manages to make something genuinely local (and Celtic) of Peer's story while preserving the epic outlines.
It's a story of our time, as it seems to embrace the whole comedy and rumpus of human aspiration and achievement, and then blows it all to smithereens in the imagery of the Button Man who comes to melt Peer down in his ladle, and the layers of the onion peeled away to reveal nothing at the centre.
Dominic Hill's production acts in a poignant pincer movement, using a new version by Colin Teevan, to show the young Peer hunting reindeer and disrupting wedding feasts, in the vibrant, chaotic figure of Keith Fleming, and his older counterpart, played by a bearded, portly, Gerry Mulgrew recalling his days of empire and decline in a television interview.
The actors bear an uncanny resemblance to each other, and the important women in Peer's life are given a constant embodiment of both timelessness and reality by Ann Louise Ross as his mother in cropped hair and farm clothes, and Ashley Smith as the ideal (and idealised) partner, Solveig. Another stanchion in the framework is a mysterious musician in a white suit, whose role you can probably guess at before it's fully revealed.
Not often does Peer succeed on these two levels of poetry and theatricality, but this vigorously scatological version certainly does the trick. Willy Russell's heroine in Educating Rita, answering an exam question on how one might best produce Peer Gynt, writes simply, "Put it on the radio." Hill and his company, however, manage a series of vivid theatrical sequences that gel into an unforgettable physical rendition of the banality of human endeavour.
The actors do well to fill the large Barbican stage, and it's a tribute to their fire and passion that this great dramatic parable works its intriguing magic so insidiously.
The old Peer doesn't return to the Ibsenite fjords on a ship, but to the auld country on a package flight where everything goes wrong. Back in the forest, the King of the Trolls is a smelly vagrant, Solveig a blind comforter and Peer himself a destitute combination of Timon of Athens and King Lear.
To 16 May (020-7638 8891; www. barbican.org.uk); then touring Dundee, Aberdeen, Inverness, Edinburgh, Glasgow
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