Updated: Aug 3, 2019
The National, Friday 5th July 2019. Review.
Nobody wants to be average, least of all Peter Gynt, the star of his own world in a reworking of a classic Norwegian tale. David Hare provides Peter (James McArdle) with a perfect opportunity to present his range and then go way beyond. He takes us on a very funny, at times devastating romp through life. Full Scottish. Full Ibsen. Just right for the National Theatre. A play for our time, framed long ago. A triumphant escapade with fun, frolics, dreams and fantasies to the fore. Never mind for now the social discord, political incompetence, religious hypocrisy and the fake triumph of social media. We chuckle with collective approval of Hare’s vision.
James McArdle, the hero, taking himself on a multi-persona journey of stories
Optimism abounds at first for Peter, a man who would be an icon. A man who climbs mountains, crosses boundaries, tells fibs to his mum and then puts her on the roof of their house so she can’t cramp his style. From humble beginnings and a broken home, he embarks on a whirlwind tour of life as he wants it to be. Frequently antagonising others, mainly men. Even more frequently engaging in sexual conquests. Bride stealing and cavorting with cowgirls. Proposing to a seductive blonde who is really a troll who only looks beautiful when she is wanted. Pig ugly when she is not. By that point Peter has already fallen in love with the one who would be the love of his life, if he would only stay with her. He wants more. For once, he wants to be better, for someone else. That doesn’t last long though, and yet again, Peter finds a way to stray. If we want to see Peter Gynt as a hero, he repeatedly shows us he is flawed, so often disappointing and misusing women.
The Cowgirls: Peter thinks he can handle all three at once.
(L-R: Dani Heron, Hannah Visocchi and Lauren Ellis-Steel). Photo: Manuel Harlan
"Be true to yourself and damn everyone else".
Peter, with the trolls, takes a tail but won't be blinded. Photo: Manuel Harlan
In the second act, Hare presents Peter as a Trump-alike. Filthy rich. Ignorant. Selfish in the extreme. Obnoxious. Wallowing in his billions which he makes from trading arms. No respect or concern for anyone else. Peter even owns his own golf course. He also owns a newspaper, but don’t we all? I usually have a pile of Guardians in a wicker basket underneath the coffee table.
Peter no longer seems to want to be a better man, just a bigger man. Otherwise, why mix with morally bankrupt business moguls? Spongers and bleeders. Why not cast off those who want to draw on his armful of credit cards? His favourite is a Nandos rewards card. And right at this point, he’s as far away as ever from his refugee sweetheart, Sabine (Anya Chalotra), who stays waiting for him in their shack in the forest. One heart has hardened. Another has broken. Money is now Peter’s main squeeze.
Finally, Peter meets the worst threat imaginable to his own existence, other than himself. Bring on the devil in disguise (Guy Henry), on board a ship about to capsize. There’s a drop of homage to Titanic, here, but in this disaster Peter finds his life threatened by a fellow survivor in the water, drowns the man and saves himself. Escapes death at sea, only to perish on land, in the forest, at the behest of the Button Moulder (Oliver Ford Davies).
Sending the cook to a watery grave. Photo: Manuel Harlan
The Button Moulder does his worse. Refuses to allows Peter greatness. Peter argues with the devil’s henchman, but repeatedly fails to provide evidence that he is not just like everybody else. Not good enough for heaven, not bad enough for hell. Just normal. Worthy only of recycling. No more, no less. Peter Gynt’s life has been mediocre. His end will be the same.
Slowly, finally, painfully, Peter realises that he has wasted his life. Everything he has touched has been worthless. Peeling away the layers of an onion (a painful representation of all he is and has ever been), Peter searches for his heart and finds none. So much optimism in the beginning. Full of company throughout. But finally, a shadow of his former brilliant self, and alone. He wants to descend into the abyss. Once again, denied.
This is a fantastic production. Thrilling, funny, poignant, searching and disturbing. Peter Gynt has led us a merry dance. David Hare has fuelled his steps. We have risen and fallen with them, and between us we are left with nothing. Peter, baffled by his own lack of self-awareness, is a man out of his time. Ultimately, just out of time. The lasting impression is one of emptiness. It was all meant to be so very different.
Desolate: the landscape of the mind.
Photo: Manuel Harlan
If you say something often enough, it becomes true. So Peter told us. Be yourself. It made for quite a story. Alas, his story is full of unfulfilled ambition, unrealised dreams, failure to do the right thing, and a bunch of crimes and misdemeanours along the way. And somehow, the dashing figure who has led this life, and ruined himself along the way, is deemed mediocre. By definition, most of us are average. But, like Peter, I think some of us can genuinely claim to be worse than others say we are.
© Eddie Hewitt 2019