Peer Gynt

Henrik Ibsen
Northern Stage, Newcastle, and touring

Production photos

threeovereden constitute a north-eastern theatre company who seem determined to demonstrate that small scale and modest resources can offer sufficient scope to tackle the biggest of themes and the most awe-inspiring of dramatic reputations. I first saw them flinging themselves into Sean O’Brien’s translation of Aristophanes’ The Birds on a small stage wedged between the book-stacks of Newcastle’s Literary and Philosophical Society Library, and was struck then by a certain spirit of “Let’s do the show right here in the barn” that overlooked uncomfortable viewing angles and poor acoustics in an energetic urge to get it up there and in front of an audience.

Of course, Northern Stage offers an infinitely more comfortable, conventional setting, but that’s neither essential for their style of production nor for Peer Gynt itself. In many ways, the choice of this notoriously “unperformable” play demonstrates a marriage made in heaven – three hours of investigating the issue of personal identity with a massive landscape (represented by a red box) and a cast of scores (brought to the stage by five actors) gives threeovereden something to get their teeth into. They clearly aren’t afraid to bite.

There’s a memorable moment in Educating Rita when, in response to the question of how best to overcome the staging difficulties presented by Ibsen’s play, Rita answers, “Do it on the radio.” Certainly, anything resembling a naturalistic production of Peer Gynt would be punctuated by so many scene/costume changes that it would have to run (as has occasionally happened) over two nights. It would also risk missing the point entirely. The play is about the whole process of one man’s fairly epic life, but it’s also about what happens inside one man’s head. It is characterised by impossible switches not just of setting, but also of scale – Peer may be infiltrating the Hall of the Mountain King, or he may be discussing the minute process of moulding a button or peeling the layers of an onion. Were it not for a composition date of 1867, you’d swear that Ibsen saw his drama in cinematic terms, so clearly does it want to swoop from epic view to intimate close-up.

But on stage there has to be another way to get to these dramatic destinations, and threeovereden opt to make a decided virtue of necessity by having Peer (Leslie Simpson) surrounded by a mutable crowd of four whose comings and goings serve to frame the central character, constantly renewing the circumstances around him while never quite letting his own identity gel. It must be frustrating to play someone who fails to emerge as anything except an energetic, sociable void, falling from one adventure to the next without really engaging with any meaning. Simpson’s likely lad makes Peer into an everyman resonant for a modern audience, while the translation does much the same for Ibsen’s text. I miss the sonorous theatrical rhythms of the Christopher Fry version, but this new English re-making carries a richness of its own in casual colloquialism and verbal snappiness, completely in keeping with the company’s style.

A surprising virtue in such a pared-down performance is the amount of sheer activity and energy displayed on the stage. Because it isn’t verbally weighty or bogged down with the apparatus of theatricality, the play starts to operate like a trampoline, flinging Peer from incident to incident. Everyone seems to be dashing between an assortment of assignations, annoyances and disasters, and you can see that Peer survives so well because he’s the nippiest, buzzing around to catch at the nearest shiny object or bright idea. The changes in tone are so swift and so many that to tumble us from each to the next without pause for breath makes the best bid to hold them all in place, though it does give the production the slight feeling of a roller-coaster ride. Given this pace, I did wonder if the final scenes of a slow-growing self-awareness were allowed enough time to unfold. The button-moulder might have loomed larger, Peer might even have slowed down – but perhaps we were meant to come away with the awareness that a constant, unreflecting catching at life isn’t likely to admit us any dignified terminal gravitas.

Reviewer: Gail-Nina Anderson

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