Peer Gynt reinvented as a preening, booze-fuelled stadium rock god in existential free-fall? Yes, that's what Ibsen's fantasizing, compulsively deceptive loon of hero becomes, in his pot-bellied, narcissistic middle age, in Irina Brook's exhilaratingly bold and thematically penetrating new adaptation of the play.
Performed in English by the Theatre National de Nice, the production is now visiting the stunning International Ibsen Season at the Barbican where it colonises the vast main stage with a confidence that encompasses, in mood, everything from rude, brawling, sprawling comedy and storming rock and folk (played live by the superbly versatile multi-ethnic ensemble) to moments of charged emotional and philosophical delicacy where you hold your breath and are deafened by the pin-drop hush.
Brook's fiercely fresh vision of the piece is given a spiky freedom by the jumpily livewire songs provided by Iggy Pop and by the specially written poems by American dramatist Sam Shepard that take Ibsen's original ideas and sentiments (themselves originally written as verse) and turn them into laconically rebellious lyrics as when the young Peer, temporarily stuck without a drink, wishes that he had alcohol to blot out the peevish back-biting of his rural neighbours: “Their scorn would skip off my horny hide like mosquitoes smacking steel”.
William Blake's naked man, arm outstretched to welcome the world in his “Albion Rose” design, peers through a rent in the white sheeting that covers the adaptable playing space, blank except for a few props, the electric (in several ways) band and some mobile staircases. The Blakean figure is in implicitly ironic contrast to Peer who traverses the globe and seems to devour experience but who tastes, penultimately, only the ashes of hollow bad faith.
The play takes him from youth to old age and some productions employ three actors, while some have a young actor pretend to age. Brook has had the liberating idea of presenting Peer throughout in the weathered, strapping but slightly going to seed, shape of the magnificent Ingvar E Sigurdsson. In a performance of unsparing, yet disciplined emotional abandon, his presence highlights what's embarrassing and psychologically defensive about Peer's fake fits of youthful derring-do and dependency on his sorely tried mother (a lovely comic/poignant Mireille Maalouf) and what is desperate about the Jagger struttings of his supposed pomp (there's a farcically hilarious international press conference).
“And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive at where we started/And know the place for the first time” wrote T S Eliot in “Little Gidding”. Peer has to go on just such a massive detour and undergo spiritual trials before he can circle back to his life's true meaning – Shantala Shivalingappa's enchanting, patient Solveig (in truth, a bit of a male fantasy). Brook, hugely talented daughter of the great Peter, stages the trials with an indelible vividness.
Punching a constantly repositioned looking glass of grey obstructive polythene represents his fight with the ectoplasmic Boyg. Is the self a gift that you have to realise or a sty of desires into which you subside? In the piggy underworld of the Trolls, it's the latter and the terror of being surgically adapted so you have to see the world their way is brought home here in a phantasmagoria of bling, snout masks and manic cabaret. Unforgettable.
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