O’Reilly Theatre, Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival 2011
Sept 30-Oct 16
My review of Rough Magic’s Peer Gynt by Henrik Ibsen coming up just as soon as I lose my wife to an outhouse door ...
“O falling star, how we relate.
We fall, we shine, we obliterate”
- Peer Gynt
“My Peer can ride a buck,
That’s the truth”
When you’re talking Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt you know you’re talking an epic display of poetry and fantasy in deliberate disregard of the naturalist drama; a true theatrical powerhouse. As a director, it must be like fairy-dust on your fingertips to have the opportunity to approach this fantastical whirlwind of imagined beings and scenarios. After all, what is a finer subject for an artist than that of imagination?
Rough Magic have prepared for this particular outing, working from a new adaptation by Arthur O’Riordan (Improbable Frequency) and score by musical ensemble Tarab, a jazz outfit bridging Mediterranean and Irish influences. I’ll always have one scepticism with Peer Gynt though: how can it appeal to human sensibilities beyond its pageantry surface?
The reputations of Peer and his mother are caught in social ruin because his father, once a highly regarded farmer, left them in large debt. No matter, Peer would rather chase reindeer on the wind of his imagination. His mother attempts to slap these fancies out of him, angry that he failed in his opportunity with Ingrid, the daughter of the richest farmer. With Ingrid’s wedding imminent, and rumour that she still holds a torch for him, Peer crashes the festivities. Greeted with mockery by the wedding guests, he finds kindness in the eyes of Solveig, a girl new to the village and with whom he’d like to dance with. His reputation is his undoing. Instead he spends the night with Ingrid, before being banished to wander the mountains.
Lynne Parker’s production thunders with pure theatrical might. The action plays out in John Comiskey and Alan Farquharson’s majestic set, a palace interior with Ibsen’s forest visible outside the windows. O’Riordan’s rhyming verse, its metre wonderfully contagious even days afterwards, twists and throws quips, occasionally with the slam of a rap. Tarab’s brooding plucks of a cello suspects a dark mystery, later accompanied by Irish flutes and tribal drums to heighten proceedings. Rory Nolan gives a pillaring performance as Peer and is in excellent company. Peter Daly and Fergal McElherron, sharp and nimble, bounce off Nolan’s monologues so that contemplation retains melody. McElherron is also chilling as the dark passenger onboard the boat who wishes to dissect Peer’s corpse in order to learn how dreams are manifested. A particular highlight for me going in, still haunted by the heartbreaking Berlin Love Tour, was Hillary O’Shaughnessy, hilarious here as power bride Ingrid. In counterbalance to O’Shaughnessy’s exuberating confidence is sweet songbird Sarah Greene, angelic and funny. Add Will O’Connell (wit-abundant), Karen Ardiff and Arthur O’Riordan (both of whom deliver the Irish idioms of O’Riordan’s text brilliantly) to the mix and the talent here is marvellous.
Peer Gynt has always been vague in its intersection of where reality and imagination meet. Parker’s interpretation suggests a mental health issue, with Nolan dressed in patient scrubs and Greene and O’Shaughnessy appearing occasionally as nurses. Early on it is evident that the strongest relationship here is that between Peer and his mother, performed charmingly by Nolan and Ardiff. When Peer literally rides with his dying mother to the gates of St Peter it evokes a beautiful intermingling of reality and fiction that anyone who was read bedtime stories by a parent will no doubt relate to.
From here on though it’s spectacle all the way. Peer’s slave-trading enterprises in Morocco, being received as a prophet in Egypt, and scheming with intercontinental partners in the mad house all pursue an extreme empirical satire which doesn’t feel particularly resonant, personally or culturally. Furthermore, the story of Gynt and the type of man he wishes to be seems to be drowned out. By the time O’Shaughnessy’s sphinx is wheeled out (one of the most bizarre things I have ever seen), the pageantry gets tiring.
Also vague is the ending to Ibsen’s epic, which a director may choose to interpret as the death of Peer’s life or a rebirth of it. Parker gives her performers black umbrellas, borrowed from the earlier scene of a peasant’s funeral, once held in mourning but now swung in sweet waltz with the music. Even though Peer’s turns inside out, he walks on, a patriot of his own glorious artifice.
What did everybody else think?