Peter Gynt at the National Theatre: a sprawling, surreal nightmare

Everything was going fine at Peter Gynt until people wearing pig masks came on stage. Granted the first thirty minutes of David Hare’s adaptation of Ibsen’s play had been slow, but the jump into this surreal world marked the beginning of the descent into a wonderland without the tea, cakes and fun.

The titular Peter (James McArdle) has come home to the highlands of Scotland to see his mum, Agatha (Ann Louise Ross). Always ‘dreaming of glory’ and a ‘serial fantasist’, over the course of three and half hours we watch Peter’s life unfold as the wheel of fortune turns and turns. We see him as a young man returned from war, as a middle-aged fallen businessman, and an old man. McArdle puts in an earnest performance, though it’s difficult to care about the character of Peter because he is so unlikeable. 

As associate director Harry Mackrill explained in an interview with London Student, Richard Hudson’s set design, which creates a divide between the highlands and a blank space for Peter’s subconscious, neatly balances the distinction between dreams and reality. Throughout the show, Peter visits some of the most archetypal dramatic spaces: a heath (King Lear), on a boat (Pericles or Twelfth Night), or a forest (any Shakespeare pastoral). Yet the rapid speed with which this production moves from space to space, and the uncanny tone that accompanies each locale, amazingly becomes repetitive despite the variety.

James McArdle and the company of Peter Gynt.

Director Jonathan Kent has done a strong job in marshalling the cast of twenty-five, and there are a variety of strong performances. Ann Louise Ross demands the stage throughout the first act and Tamsin Carroll as the Woman in Green and Anitra offered some rather lovely singing. Oh, yes, that’s the other thing about Peter Gynt: there’s music and dance, too (with music directed by Kevin Amos and movement from Polly Bennett). 

If it wasn’t obvious, Peter Gynt is a complete monster of a show. Modern references to Bitcoin and Nandos are littered throughout the show in what feels a bizarre attempt to over-emphasise the ‘adaptation’ nature of the work. Weirder still, then, is Sabine’s (Anya Chalotra) wish to open a book shop in rural Scotland – surely, she’d want to be a kindle-book writer if Hare wanted to be down with the kids? 

At a point in the sprawling Peter Gynt, a character observes ‘this is going to be a long one.’ They were right. Good performances are let down by Hare’s apparent inability to edit or curtail the material, and many of the scenes feel they could be cut in half without any loss to the actual show. Peter might live in an ‘empire of dreams’, but this quickly becomes a nightmare, and one you cannot wake up from for three hours.


Peter Gynt is at the National Theatre until 8th October, 2019.

Photograph credit: Manuel Harlan.

Anthony Walker-Cook is a PhD candidate at UCL. @AntWalker_Cook

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