There have been some huge hits in the Olivier Theatre during Rufus Norris’ NT regime – Small Island, Follies, Hadestown and Amadeus among them. But there have also been some horrendous flops: Macbeth, Salome, Saint George and the Dragon, and Common spring to mind. Next up is Peter Gynt, an adaptation of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt by David Hare.
Jonathan Kent’s staging is a co-production with the Edinburgh International Festival, which it will visit briefly in August, before returning to the Olivier until October. It stars 30-year-old James McArdle, whose remarkable resume already includes Angels In America, Young Chekhov, and the James Plays.
Hare hasn’t exactly been on fire of late. His last play – I’m Not Running – ran in the Lyttleton last year to dire reviews, and his BBC TV series Collateral received similarly sour write-ups. It’s been a long time since the Plenty-playwright produced a bona-fide banger.
Does Peter Gynt prove that the dramatist behind Pravda, Skylight and Stuff Happens still has something to say? Does McArdle make yet more magic on the NT’s stages? Does Kent’s production go down in RuNo’s hit list, or his much-maligned miss column?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
Ibsen’s Peer Gynt is a five-act verse-play about the travels and travails of a Norwegian fantasist, stuffed full of folklore and myth. Hare’s Peter Gynt follows the same structure, but updates it to the modern day: his protagonist is a Scottish soldier searching for self-fulfilment.
For a few critics, it’s a move that yields results. Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★★) calls it “a sharp satire on contemporary mores” and thinks that “Hare has fashioned from this unruly epic an intriguing new work that exposes the madness of the modern world”.
Mark Shenton (LondonTheatre, ★★★★), meanwhile, claims that it is “a unique parable for our times” and Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★★) writes that “Hare’s very funny script is richly resourceful in finding contemporary parallels”.
Most reviews, though, reckon that this is something of a car-crash. It’s “tedious”, “heavy-handed” and “very long” according to Natasha Tripney (The Stage, ★★), “an interminable bore” according to Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★), and suffers from “fundamental sour sogginess” according to Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★).
“It doesn’t ever quite resolve the mad veering between fantasy and reality that characterises the original, and in fact, introduces some discordant key changes all of its own,” opines Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage, ★★★), while Tripney observes that “throughout there’s a sense that Hare is using the play as scaffolding on which to hang his political preoccupations rather than truly attempting to rework it in a contemporary context”.
Hare can be “disarmingly witty”, writes Lukowski, but “for all the fleeting LOLs, he’s not wrestled Ibsen’s rambling fantasy into an emotionally coherent whole”. Nick Curtis (Evening Standard, ★★), meanwhile, merely asks: “Who thought this was a good idea?”
Ex-Almeida artistic director Jonathan Kent has a glittering list of credits – The Height Of The Storm, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Gypsy. The last time he teamed up with David Hare and James McArdle was for 2016’s Young Chekhov trilogy, which was widely admired by the critics. Is this production similarly praised?
Not by some critics it’s not. Cavendish writes that for all the resources Kent throws at the show, “a sense of aimlessness and even amateurishness takes hold”, while Crompton complains that his direction “lacks its usual subtlety”, pointing out that “it’s almost as if everyone panicked about bringing the play to life”.
Most critics are kinder, though. Billington reckons that “Kent’s production and Richard Hudson’s design virtuosically meet the demands of a text that transports us from Dunoon to a Trump-style golf-course, a Riyadh hotel, the sands near Giza and a storm-lashed ship”, while Taylor thinks that “Kent’s production gets the majestic measure of the Olivier”.
“Hudson’s imposing design bifurcates the stage,” he describes. “One half looks like one of those lovely Eric Ravilious visions of a rather bleached and closely shaved green and pleasant land. The other gives us slinky and pervy glimpses of a psychic dystopia.”
For Tripney, some moments are “at least appealingly weird”, but the inclusion of occasional songs is a serious misstep. “Peter encounters a trio of, for want of a better term, troll groupies, dressed, for reasons that are never made completely clear, as cowgirls who break into song,” she relates.
The critical consensus is that Kent’s production is imaginative, but that it can’t paper over the cracks of Hare’s script. “Kent has lavished no end of care on the production, and Richard Hudson’s hallucinogenic set designs continually upstage the cast,” writes Clive Davis (Times, ★★). “But you are still faced with a fantastical drama that meanders back and forth around an alarmingly repetitive stock of philosophical ideas for well over three hours.”
Glaswegian actor James McArdle is rapidly on the rise. He earned an Evening Standard award nomination for his role in Young Chekhov, and an Olivier nod for his performance in Angels In America as well. And he is, most critics concur, the best thing about this production.
He “impressively captures not just Peter’s progress from youth to age but also his tragic awareness of his own emptiness” according to Billington, and is “a megaton bomb of an actor” who “goes from almost-loveable fantasist to very-hatable capitalist, to embittered old douchebag over the course of the play” according to Lukowski.
“It is an astonishingly good performance, full of detail as he captures Peter’s shifting moods,” agrees Crompton. “He’s not afraid to make the ultimate anti-hero unattractive and unkind, but he never loses sight of the tragic longing at his heart, the desire to matter. He’s the main reason to see the play.”
“McArdle is cornering the market in sexy, irresistible shits,” says Taylor. “Peter is in compulsively prattling denial that ultimate authenticity exists. His talk is a non-stop haemorrhage of defensively vainglorious yarns.”
But, for all his exuberance, he can’t quite keep the show on the road, according to others. “Not even McArdle, with all his energy and versatility, can prevent a sinking feeling,” writes Cavendish, while Davis observes that “McArdle is impassioned and intense from start to finish, but since most of the other characters in a large ensemble are thinly sketched, the piece has the air of a lengthy string of soliloquies”.
Some critics – Michael Billington in the Guardian, Paul Taylor in the Independent – think it is, successfully skewering our contemporary fixation on self in a phantasmagoria of surreal satire. Most, though, think this is a full-on flop.
David Hare’s Ibsen rewrite is awkward, unwieldy and unsubtle, and can’t be rescued by either an impressively expensive production from Jonathan Kent, nor a powerhouse performance from James McArdle. Two-star reviews from The Stage, Time Out, Times, Telegraph, Evening Standard and others suggest that this is another stinker in the NT’s biggest theatre.