While Henrik Ibsen is most known among theatre audiences for his stage plays A Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler but his stage adaptation of his epic poem “Peer Gynt” with musical composition by Edvard Grieg remains one of his most performed works as a story steeped in Norwegian culture and folklore.
The sprawling plot written in rhyming verse, translated by May-Brit Akerholt, follows the unlikeable Peer Gynt (Philippe Klaus) from his home with his mother Aase (Elaine Hudson) onto his adventures after being chased out of the village for his antisocial crimes. Over years he encounters a troll empire and seduces the princess (Katherine Munro), sets up an isolated cabin with his love Solveig (Emily Turner) before abandoning her, battles various mythological creatures, and even makes a fortune in the Transatlantic Slave Trade before returning to his village just in time to witness his mother’s death. In his final years, Peer is approached by two beings, the Stranger (Jack Elliot Mitchell) and the Button Moulder (David Kerslake), who are here to negotiate Peer’s dying hours. Facing these men forces Peer to reflect on his selfishness, greed, and cruelty and to reconcile the type of person he was in this life.
This production of epic proportions was a long time in the making with Endangered Productions and director Christine Logan offering a selection of the songs and scenes in Nordic Noir in 2021. Since then, the production has expanded into a complete work with a full orchestra conducted by Peter Alexander. The set design by Sandy Gray was simple with a handful of furniture props and a large projection screen between the orchestra and stage onto which different static scenes by Andrew Mill and Wayne Richmond were projected to convey the locations of forest, mountain, desert, and sea. The majority of the atmosphere was conveyed through the elaborate costuming by Miriam Lohmann which covered a range of styles and aesthetics between the sooty, pig-like trolls, the green and spritely herd girls, and a sensuous stint in Arabia with customary silk scarves and tinkling beads. On top of the costumes, the lighting design from Michael Schell added another layer of the fantastical with deep washes of red, green, or blue depending on the scene’s tone and location. All of these production elements worked well together to great a sense of grandeur in the epic story-telling mode that wove together realism and fantasy with little separation.
Similarly, Logan’s direction of the production considered the mix of poetry, fantasy, and adventure for a balanced approach to archetypical and realistic characterisations. Klaus carried the detestable decisions of Peer well with a brash arrogance and entitlement which particularly clashed against Turner’s soft and gentle Solveig. Hudson as Peer’s mother, Munro as the troll princess, and Alan Faulkner as the Troll King all offered more or less ironic realism in their characters and as ones often trying to get Peer to take responsibility for his actions. While others, like Mitchell and Kerslake, had clearly more fantastical approaches to their mythical roles as trolls, Boyg, the Stranger, and the Button Moulder as based in Norwegian folklore. Other stand-out performances came from the trio of singers Wei Jiang, Jessica Manclark, and Karen Lambert who were particularly effective as the seductive herd girls and bedouins twisting around to meet Peer’s whims but with spectacular voices that filled out the music beautifully.
With so much packed into this epic production, there was little time spent with any particular character other than Peer but the question of identity that threaded through each encounter was potent and at times haunting. The Troll King challenged Peer on the difference between men and trolls, the business men associates of Peer’s slave trade (Mitchell, Kerslake, Faulkner) question ethics and integrity v profit, and the Boyg’s refrain that it is itself all culminated in the Button Moulder’s reckoning with Peer’s identity-lessness in his final hours. In the end, what makes a man? Is it his birth, actions, or luck and who decides? When the Button Moulder comes for you, and he will, what will you tell him to account for yourself?
Peer Gynt ran at Paddington RSL from June 30th – July 3rd
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