Reviews Dublin Published 3 October 2011

Peer Gynt

30th September - 16th October

Ibsen’s other-realities and philosophical conundra.

Jane Grogan

"Resolutely Irish."

Who can resist a hero like this, a shape-shifting teller of tales? Not Rough Magic, who have reunited the artistic creators of 2004’s hit, Improbable Frequency, to produce in Peer Gynt, another sparkling exploration of fantastical other-realities and philosophical conundra, spiked with some uncomfortable home truths.

In Arthur Riordan’s script, under Lynne Parker’s direction, Ibsen’s verse-drama becomes a rollicking Hiberno-Scandinavian journey in rhyming couplets and riotous fantasy. Although Rory Nolan turns in a decent performance as the protagonist who eschews glum reality for wilder and wilder lived stories – and the surreal dominates – this is very much an ensemble piece, with Tarab, the group of musicians veiled behind the bay windows at the centre of the stage, absolutely integral to the ensemble.

Ibsen’s play tells of a young Norwegian, son of a drunkard father and loving mother (here, a recognisably doting Irish Mammy) whose errant ways leave his mother destitute and his reputation in tatters. Chastised by his Mammy for failing to renew the family’s fortunes by marrying a rich farmer’s daughter, he rushes to her wedding where, before he steals the bride away to the mountains, he meets the lovely Solveig (Sarah Greene), a vision of innocence and constancy (from the independent republic of Cork, naturally). But an interlude with the daughter of the king of the mountain-trolls (Karen Ardiff, amusingly doubling her ‘Mammy’ role) prevents Peer from settling down with Solveig, and set him on a life of adventures and self-reinvention, from America to Egypt, before he finally faces his end and the realization that no supernatural force is impressed enough by the conviction with which he has lived his life to have an interest in giving him a fate after death. Thus, at least, goes the basic plot, though it is usually overtaken by the surreal fantasies and re-tellings of Peer’s adventures.

There is a resolutely Irish feel to this production. Central to Peer’s difficulty is the advice he receives from the troll-king (Arthur Riordan) early on, who explains the difference between humans and trolls: humans, he notes, live by the maxim ‘Be yourself’, a version of Polonius’s injunction to his son, Laertes, but trolls live instead by the principle ‘Be yourself, sure’. Riordan’s knowing Hibernicization brilliantly places Peer in a tradition of self-serving, shape-shifting Irishmen all the way back to Maria Edgeworth’s Thady Quirke. Peer also recalls that other famous Scandinavian hero, Hamlet, and faces many of the same battles and crises of familial and political identity as Hamlet does. Like Hamlet, he transforms himself, shuffles through a pack of roles, to cope with what life throws at him. But by framing the action of the play within a genteel (and most un-Irish) psychiatric institution replete with potted ferns, solid furniture and the dressing-gowned however, Peer’s adventures and challenges are curiously reined in. Such a grounding feels unnecessary when the richness of Riordan’s allusions makes Peer’s journey evoke heroes from Odysseus to Prufrock, taking in other erring self-transformers along the way, including King Lear and even (if my fancy doesn’t take me too far), one Martin McGuinness in his latest incarnation as presidential candidate.

In fact, the set itself, although sumptuously realized, feels not just confining but also under-used, and seems to betray an (unwarranted) lack of confidence in the abstractness of the material – all the more surprising in a company as dramatically inventive as Rough Magic. The windows bellying inward from the terrace where the musicians play to which everybody but Peer (who always ‘goes round’) has access, are a curiously passive space at the centre of the stage, serving more symbolic than practical purposes (the still centre, whether of Solveig longing, Penelope-like, for Peer’s return, or more resonantly still, of the source of the musical interlocutor for Peer’s storytelling). It recalls the more successful deployment of a curved bar as an occluded central discovery space in Improbable Frequency.

If Peer’s strength – his ability to sustain himself through storytelling, to spin his very identity out of his stories – is also his weakness, so too the production’s strengths and weaknesses often derive from the same source. Riordan’s rhyming couplets can be clunky and over-emphatic, but at other moments they generate bravura dialogic syncopation with more complex musical rhythms. The allusiveness and copiousness of the language with which some pretty daunting philosophical issues are confronted – identity, mutability, materialism, to name a few – has the double-effect of both piling on the complexity, and of highlighting alternative ways to deal with it through powerful dramatic devices: a figurine set whirling on a turntable, a final exit among umbrellas.

Similarly, a certain unevenness that probably derives from the long and various nature of Ibsen’s play, had the effect of setting off even more powerfully stand-out scenes and performances: the lyricism of Peer’s final moments with his dying ‘Mammy’, or his conversation with the devil who finally appears disguised as a delightfully louche soul-catching friar complete with butterfly net. Rough Magic have pulled off another coup de théâtre, but I wish they had taken off the safety wheels.

For more details about this year’s Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival, visit the festival website.


Jane Grogan is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

Peer Gynt Show Info

Produced by Rough Magic

Directed by Lynne Parker

Cast includes Rory Nolan, Fergal McElherron, Peter Daly, Karen Ardiff, Arthur Riordan, Sarah Greene, Hilary O’Shaughnessy, Will O’Connell




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