Wednesday 17 July 2019

Peter Gynt at the National, or, Another Flawed Epic

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Saturday 13th July 2019.

In recent years one strand of Edinburgh International Festival theatre programming has been securing higher profile co-production partnerships in the English-speaking theatre world. The idea is admirable but the results have been mixed. The last link up with a major London house (the Old Vic) two years ago produced the disappointing epic The Divide. This year Edinburgh audiences will soon be visited by a new version of another epic - Ibsen's Peter Gynt, this time in co-production with the National Theatre. In advance the show had one clearly positive element - the casting of James McArdle as the lead following his magnificent performance in Angels in America. But there were also question marks - the last Ibsen Jonathan Kent directed at the National - the epic Emperor and Galilean was flawed, most of adaptor David Hare's recent work has been, from where I've been sitting, undistinguished, and the designing of a production that would work equally well in the Olivier and the Edinburgh Festival Theatre did not strike me as straightforward. Sadly, this proved to be a disappointing afternoon.

The one saving grace of the show is James McArdle who makes a valiant, though ultimately vain effort to bring it to life. He has great presence and energy. He ages strikingly - the old, embittered Scotsman of the last act is a particularly fine piece of work. But he failed finally to make me care enough about Peter, or to conceal the considerable flaws of the rest of the show. Credit is also due to Oliver Ford Davies, whose delivery brings a welcome authority to the concluding scenes. Jonathan Coy finds occasional sparks as Bertram. The rest of the ensemble work hard but none of them make a particularly strong impression, though this may be to some extent a consequence of the adaptation or Ibsen's original.

The production, excluding the number of performers on stage which would probably be beyond many companies, looks conspicuously tour designed. It can't seem to decide whether it wants to be a spare staging that requires audience imagination, or an elaborate fantasy that really tries to bring the multiple locales to life, and ends up stuck between the two. Early on there's an overuse of trucks, later the light dressing of the same stretch of green hillside plus undistinguished projections are not enough to make the rapid shifting of places convincing. Overall, it feels lost in the large Olivier space - perhaps this will be less of a problem in Edinburgh. This was compounded for this viewer with an awareness of the technical capabilities of the Olivier. Here, it seemed, was a show crying out for the use of the revolve, but precisely one which could not use it because it has to tour. It was difficult not to conclude that it would have been better paired with the Lyttelton.

Then there's Hare's adaptation. He does make the funniest jokes using Scottish place names since The High Life and it was refreshing to see a play which will travel to the EIF which is willing to question Scotland's idea of how welcoming it is. But although the adaptation evidently intends to locate the drama in our contemporary world there's a maddening failure to make that concrete. Instead the characters and places are used for a sequence of familiar, tiresome political points from Hare - it reaches a nadir with the line evidently intended to remind us all how villainous Blair was to have invaded Iraq. The irony, in view of the independence debate, and the adaptation's undeveloped subtext as to whether or not Scotland welcomes the other, is that there was an obvious biting contextualisation which could have been deployed - the ongoing tensions in English-Scottish relations. But Hare, like recent Scottish writers at the EIF who have tackled the state of the nation, avoids the difficulties of that question pretty completely.

Hare/Ibsen's approach to the central relationship between Peter and Sabine is also problematic. For the ending to pack punch we need to believe in their declared feelings but Peter's behaviour towards her on their first extended encounter makes it unconvincing that her rapidly awakened love for him could survive it, or that it should remain sufficiently strong that she proceeds to spend years single and pining.

Mention also has to be made, I fear, of the songs. Incidental music has too often been a weakness of Norris's National and is so again here. It's not clear from the programme whether Hare or composer Paul Englishby is responsible for the lyrics but particularly in Act 2 they are painful. Englishby's word setting is undistinguished.

It's perhaps worth taking a punt on this if you haven't seen James McArdle on stage previously. I certainly hope he'll return to the National or indeed the EIF. But this was overall a long, often dull afternoon. 

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