A sharp, topical satire on contemporary mores is provided by David Hare in his updated new version of Ibsen’s 1867 verse poem Peer Gynt which, in Jonathan Kent’s three-and-a-half hour National Theatre production is renamed Peter Gynt (Olivier auditorium).
This epic tale of transformation begins when Peter, a doughty Scottish soldier, returns from the war to regale his mother with tales of valour, which turn out to be taken from all the war movies he has seen.
Peter has always set his heart on being special, on being a unique individual, on being unlike anyone else and maintains the belief that individual fulfilment is the goal in life. The fantasist turns into a restless fugitive when he abducts a young bride and later deserts a devoted immigrant, Sabine.
After that Peter adopts numerous personae – buccaneering capitalist, gaining vast wealth from arms dealing, newspapers and golf courses, venturing into foreign lands, where he becomes a guru and false prophet and finally back to confront his own failure and the inevitability of death.
Hare remains faithful to Ibsen’s plot, while adding his own inventive touches – folkloristic cattle herders here become rhinestone cowgirls and the scene where the troll king urges him “To thine own self be true and damn the rest of the world” is turned into a Hieronymous Bosch-like dream.
The kingdom of the terrifying trolls is here staged as a candlelit Oxbridge high table reangled at a steep incline, around which congregate dinner-jacketed toffs.
At other moments Hare’s instincts for fierce political satire shine through, in particular the scene where Gynt is crowned Emperor of Self, he meets a lot of politicians, longing for a past where “passports were blue and everyone was white” and these deluded narcissists also include a writer who can’t write about anyone but himself.
While’s Hare’s writing is full of wit and imagination, it is fascinating to see how at precise moments, the power of Ibsen’s play reasserts itself.
One is the moving scene where a penitent Peter seeks to comfort his dying mother, who determines which recording of Strauss’s Four Last Songs she wants at her funeral. The other is Peter’s encounter with the Button Moulder, who stresses the difference between self-discovery and self-improvement.
Jonathan Kent’s production and Richard Hudson’s design complement the demands of a text that transports us from Dunoon in Scotland, to a Trump-like golf course, a Riyadh hotel, the sands near Gaza and a storm-lashed ship.
James McArdle impressively captures not just Peter’s progress from youth to age, but also the tragic awareness of his own emptiness.
There is sterling support from Ann Louise Ross as his spirited and stoic mother, Oliver Ford Davies as the Button Moulder, a figure of mortal reckoning and a gathering wistful sense of life’s brevity and futility, Anya Chalotra as the faithful Sabine and Jonathan Coy as a square-snouted troll king.
Peter Gynt is a work that exposes the madness of a modern world where truth is subjective and everything can be viewed through the narrow prism of self.
Runs until October 9 at Olivier Auditorium – National Theatre.
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