Olivier, National Theatre – until to 8 October 2019
Guest reviewer: Ben Dowell
Peer Gynt, Ibsen’s almost unperformable meandering 1867 epic – written as a poem and not really designed for the stage – has been a problem for directors for more than a century. In Willy Russell’s 1983 film Educating Rita, Julie Walters’ aspiring graduate answered her first essay question about the problem of staging it with the words “do it on the radio”. She could just as well have said “get David Hare”.
Because what the veteran playwright has done is nothing short of marvellous – bringing the saga bang up to date, he has made it a searching inquisition into today’s online, self-obsessed world, a place where, as Peter tells us, “people don’t have lives any more, they have stories”. Hare has made as much sense of Ibsen’s sprawling masterpiece as seems possible.
Peter’s futile mission to discover a sense of his self throughout his story (never mind the human cost of those he encounters) is so redolent of the narrative-making of narcissistic Instagrammers the world over it’s almost eerie. Added to that the prefiguring of Freud in Peter’s dreaming, his egotism and his problems with his mother accentuate a sense that this is an astonishingly prophetic piece of work.
James McCardle’s Peter is living on a remote Scottish island in this telling, just back from a war somewhere in the Middle East and full of mendacious claims of his heroism. This obviously allows Hare to scratch all his itches about Tony Blair and Weapons of Mass destruction, which feels a bit overdone.
The moment mid-way though his story when Peter makes his fortune, becoming a reckless Florida gold club-owning businessman and head of Gynt Enterprises is also rather blunt in its satire of You-Know-Who in the White House. But the play’s Fake Noos-ish assertion that “if people believe you did something then you did it” certainly makes this feel more justified in Hare’s retelling.
But he certainly goes a bit far at the close, when David Cameron pops up to bemoan his failure to understand the wishes of voters who weren’t as privileged as him. It’s a fair point to make, but it didn’t add much dramatically, and felt more like the kind of jokey insertion you’d expect at the Hackney Empire panto than the National. It also prompted that most irritating of National Theatre traditions – the knowing, liberal guffaw.
Still, it’s bonkers in a wonderful way, and you’ll be thinking of it long after the curtain comes down. Not just of our own age and problems but the stories and traditions it emanates from – the story of Job,, or Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. And director Jonathan Kent’s staging is quite breathtaking at times. Designer Richard Hudson’s clutter-free stage evokes the majesty and grandeur of this epic story with fabulous evocations of a Troll dinner party with a skewed table, the Egyptian desert, and Peter’s sea-voyage complete with enormous ship.
But in the end it all comes back to Peter, and his sudden sense at the close that most of our lives, however much we want to be at the centre of the world, are mediocre and hollow. McArdle is more than up to the job, coping with a hugely demanding night with intelligence and verve; his Peter is infuriating for most of the play, and its testament to our lead’s skill is that we continue to root for him. And we are left with some hard and painful questions of our own.
nationaltheatre.org.uk to 8 October