Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Peer Gynt

Henrik Ibsen, adapted, translated and directed by Terje Tveit
Ibsen Stage Company
Pleasance Theatre, London
(2008)

Production photo

Under its former name of the Dale Teater Kompani (formed originally in 2001 in a small town of that name in Western Norway) director Terje Tveit's company has already produced ten plays, five of them by Ibsen, and has played the National Theatre in Oslo as well as fringe theatres Rosemary Branch, New End and Riverside. Ibsen's domestic dramas in a small theatre space make sense -- but his great epic peopled with trolls and madmen, taking Peer Gynt on a journey from Norwegian mountains to African deserts and back again in the tiny Pleasance Theatre Space? I approached this production with some trepidation for this was a very ambitious undertaking.

Tveit squeezes a cast of fourteen and a considerable amount of talent onto this sitting-room size stage and keeps them there. It is a considerable feat of physical manipulation of bodies and furniture with dialogues often made the foreground to a melee of dancing figures giving an effect like a cinematic close-up (choreographer Federika Zurleni). Groups coalesce into tableau moments, picture or mirror frames add to complex patterns, a nude Peer poses like a dramatic Roman statue. Wardrobe doors provide an upstage centre entrance focus and beaded dresses, red feather boas conjure up the atmosphere of a 1930s speak-easy or cabaret bar.

This company specialises in being unconventional, though it's hardly that to set a classic in a different period. But Tveit has done more than that: this is a total refashioning. I caught one reference to trolls but that parallel world of folklore creatures. No Hall of the Mountain King, this is a world of crooks that is part of ordinary life, though that ordinary life is often very stylized. The core idea of the search for self is still there somewhere but this Peer doesn't peel layer upon layer of onion until there is nothing. I think Solveig appeared for just a moment but she no longer saves his soul. The script has been cut to ribbons and Tveit's translation, done in lively verse that relishes rhymes, layered with overt sexual reference that I don't think is in the original. However, I don't know it in Norwegian, and that is the translator's native language. This certainly lives up to the billing of Peer Gynt 'as you have never seen it before'! This is the way Ibsen might have written it had he been born Tveit. 'Adapted' is putting it mildly.

European directors often seem to feel they can do what they like with a 'classic' to make it their own and I don't necessarily object to that, provided one is warned. But though although it is often skilful in its handling of actors and with a lively sense of language most of the time the audience has no idea what is going on. Ibsen does not exactly provide a straightforward linear plot but this is so busy being clever it is incomprehensible.

Don't blame the actors, whose voices Tveit sometimes deliberately drowns out with loud music. They switch styles to match their director's wishes, niftily cavort in Broadway numbers and play multiple characters, which suggests a wealth of talent, and sometimes can be truly moving, mostly in those sections left closest to Ibsen's text. I think especially of Annamaria Adams' female Button Moulder in what is left of her scenes with Peer, of Pearl Marsland's Åse, here played as an alcoholic who starts off as a two dimensional caricature but has real quality in her death scene (transposed to the end of the play), both partnering Robert Carragher as Peer. He swaps roles for half the performances with Nick Whitley but in such a director-led show I wonder if that will make much difference.

Perhaps in his other productions Tveit has kept to original Ibsen and I will be interested to see what he does with Hedda Gabler later this year. Will he leave it as a linear story? Have Hedda sing 'Over the Rainbow'? Set it in a Chinese restaurant? I'd like to see him apply his skills to a play of is own and try to communicate ideas to the audience not confuse them

Until 17th February 2008

Reviewer: Howard Loxton