Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Peer Gynt

Henrik Ibsen, in a new version by Colin Teevan
National Theatre of Scotland and Dundee Rep Ensemble
Barbican Theatre
(2009)

Production photo

Peer Gynt is a difficult play and, these days, it seems that nobody is brave enough to try to play it straight. This is the second modernised and radically altered version to appear at the Barbican, following the National Theatre of Iceland's contemporary lunatic asylum re-setting in the Pit a couple of years back.

Colin Teevan sets the play in a contemporary Scottish hell that makes Irvine Welsh seem mild. His partner in crime in this award-winning co-production between the Dundee Rep and the National Theatre of Scotland is the former's past Artistic Director, now at the Traverse, Dominic Hill.

For much of the first half, Keith Ferguson's young Peer Gynt is like Rab C. Nesbit on the slide. Indeed, his experiences suggest a junkie's worst trip.

After an opening scene with Anne-Louise Ross as his long-suffering mum Aase, in which the dishevelled drunkard establishes his fantasist credentials and also the remarkable percentage of swear words in his vocabulary, an effervescent Peer Gynt (although his equally foul-mouthed detractors use a couple of other letters at the start of the laddie's surname) enters his own personal Scottish nightmare. The only concession to Ibsen's Norwegian roots is an advertising fjording, centrestage,

This land is even worse than the toughest district of Dundee on a Saturday night. The descent starts at a wedding where his former girl, Ingrid (Emily Winter), marries wimpish Mads (Martin McCormick) and our anti-hero's self-esteem hits the floor, aided by odious Aslak (Kevin Lennon).

That (mis)adventure is succeeded by a meeting with Solveig, a symbol of purity played by Ashley Smith, and then a trip to the land of the Trolls. There at least the slide slows as even Peer begins to wonder whether there isn't more to life than a succession of hangovers.

By then, he has or more probably hasn't got a horny but deeply unattractive Troll princess pregnant before moving on. Ferguson's energy in the leading role is commendable, as is the imagination and vision of the creative team.

The fireworks slow after the interval, where the mature Peer, now played by the bearded Gerry Mulgrew lives (or dreams) the good life as a white trader and armaments dealer, before briefly trying his luck as a Ray-Banned prophet whose religious inspiration is Mammon.

The production is dominated by mad modern visions although some of the Norwegian original shines through. The overall impression is of an addictive personality whose desire for self-destruction must compete with an innate goodness, that for the most part remains far below the surface. It is only in the final scenes that old Peer faces his younger self and is called to account.

In what is largely an ensemble performance working around the dual eponymous anti-hero, mention should also be made of Cliff Burnett who is practically a one-man orchestra such is his virtuosity on a wide range of musical instruments. He even plays a Geordie Charon, accompanying Peer on his final journey to an eternal resting place.

With three hours of material to render and such desire to shock and surprise, it is almost inevitable that the evening is uneven but there is enough novelty amid the chaos to keep expectant viewers on the edge of their seats almost throughout.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher