Before A Doll’s House (1879) and Ghosts (1881), the great Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen wrote some seriously batshit stuff: the kind of stuff that would essentially be an exercise in passive aggression towards literary departments if someone wrote it now. So we’ve got The Vikings of Helgeland (1858)), set in the 10th century and telling the story of Eric Bloodaxe.
Then there was Brand (1866) which is basically about a self-righteous priest wandering through the mountains. Both of these were entirely in verse, I should point out. Let’s not forget what he considered his greatest work: the ten-act Emperor and Galilean (1873) about the first Christian Roman Emperor which takes about a day to perform. He got all of these out of his system before proceeding to write all the plays that people actually put on now: the ones you’ve probably actually seen. Of course, in the process of writing those he essentially invented social realism as we understand it today.
In the Barbican’s Ibsen season, they’ve gone for two plays from the “normal” period: Thomas Ostermeier’s Enemy of the People and Simon Stone’s The Wild Duck but they’re also treating us to one from the batshit mental one: Peer Gynt. To be fair to old Henrik, he wrote Peer Gynt without ever expecting it to be staged. Freeing himself from the shackles of practicality, he wrote a five act dramatic poem with stage directions describing spoons that can be used to weigh up human souls. That kind of thing. Oh and there are trolls. Trolls are a thing in it. They’re actually a major plot point.
The vast majority of scenes in the later plays take place in domestic and civic spaces. Sometimes characters want to escape. Peer is hardly ever indoors and, when he settles into a domestic existence, even briefly, he leaves immediately. He’s the quintessential charming ne’erdowell: neither a hero, nor a villain. He is deeply unreliable, frequently selfish but charming and charismatic. He lies but his lies are beautiful to hear. He has a lust for life.
So it’s the 1980s now and Irina Brook, the daughter of Peter Brook, is studying acting in New York in her early twenties. At night, she’s out in the clubs, at parties, generally on the scene. She encounters iconic musicians Iggy Pop and David Bowie. Around this time, she reads Peer Gynt for the first time and has an idea: Iggy is Peer and Bowie is the King of the Trolls. She’s not even an actress yet, let alone a director but the idea is there. 2013 and Brook finds herself as the director of the Thétre National de Nice with an opportunity for an ambitious international production. Presumably Bowie was a bit busy cooking lasagna but Iggy was on board to write the songs and Sam Shepard has written various poems that help create the mood sitting within Brook’s own adaptation.
For four of the five acts, the piece is extremely faithful to Ibsen’s original. There are the odd references to Peer wanting to be a rockstar and Sigursson displays a certain frontman swagger in the lead but there’s no attempt to transpose anything beyond the Norwegian folktale context. The story is frankly ridiculous and the broadest of possible acting styles make no attempt to play against this. While other productions might try to make some modernday allusions through the trolls: here they are simply given funny noses to wear. Climbing a mountain is just climbing a ladder.
Peer resists the temptation to marry the Troll King’s daughter and rule in the kingdom of trolls (though this isn’t much a temptation because it involves cutting his eyes and being surrounded by people in prosthetic noses for all eternity) but he does begin to live his life like a troll: i.e. putting himself before all others. The rest of the play pivots on this dualism: has Peer remained “true to himself” or has he put himself above all others. What does being true to yourself consist of? What if the self to which you’re supposed to be true isn’t particularly admirable, as this modern day Peer ponders in Whit Stillman’s glorious The Last Days of Disco.
By the time we get to Act IV, Peer has become a rock star. He’s now known as PG and tours the world with his band “The Trolls”. We see him perform a gig, really aping Iggy now just in case the reference passed us by. He is haunted by the girl he left behind in the Fjords (externally) and by his fear of ageing (internally). As a conceit, it works. He’s achieved fame but at what cost?
However, in this version of what’s admittedly a very problematic act (Ibsen thought it should just be cut, which actually makes no sense at all dramaturgically but hey), there’s a real lack of the moral speculation that is at the core of the play’s gesture. By the fifth and final act, Peer is washed up. His family home is no more but he returns to the girl to be forgiven and, perhaps, to die.
Brook’s reworking of the play manages to be so faithful to the original as to be unimaginative while at the same time missing the opportunity the play offers at any kind of philosophical enquiry. What we’re left with are constant repetitive musings on “being true yourself” which soon come across as trite. The search for authenticity may have been a radical thought in 1867 but today it is so much a part of our culture it comes across as a wellworn cliché. Peer is such a thoroughly modern character as to appear here, thoroughly mundane. Even Iggy can’t make him anything more.