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Peter Gynt review at National Theatre, London – ‘David Hare’s clunky satire’

James McArdle in Peter Gynt at National Theatre, London. Photo: Manuel Harlan

While David Hare’s satirical update of Ibsen’s sprawling, richly mythic and dramatically cumbersome verse drama contains some witty lines and a magnetic central performance from James McArdle, for the most part it’s tedious and heavy-handed stuff. And long. Very long. It rumbles on for almost three and a half hours.

For this Edinburgh International Festival co-production, Hare has transplanted Ibsen’s play to Scotland. James McArdle plays the protagonist across all the chapters of his life, from a cocky, swaggering youngster given to making up stuff about himself to a morally bankrupt capitalist and, finally, a lost and lonely old man.

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. Bits of the text feel as if they’ve been underlined in marker pen. Hare tells us that we live in an age in which the story you tell about yourself matters more than the life you lead. You keep waiting for him to build on this idea; instead he repeats it.

Some moments of Jonathan Kent’s production are at least appealingly weird. This is particularly true of the madhouse scene in which Peter encounters innumerable versions of himself. At other times, the production decides it wants to be a musical. 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. Later his love, the immigrant Sabine (Anya Chalotra) sings an earnest number of her own. But the production never really commits to being a musical.

Anya Chalotra in Peter Gynt at National Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Hare clearly has a lot he wants to say about masculinity and capitalism, but a lot of the satire is clunkingly obvious. The trolls are depicted as dinner-jacketed Bullingdon Club types arrayed around a banqueting table. Later, when Peter becomes a wealthy businessman, he espouses the virtues of philanthropy and giving something back, while guarding his cash.

Designer Richard Hudson has covered half the stage in turf and projected clouds on the curved back wall. The set effectively shifts us from location to location, from Scotland to Florida to Egypt, but the Olivier is a notoriously hard space to fill and the production struggles in this regard. It relies heavily on McArdle’s abundant charisma. He certainly delivers, anchoring things and doing as much as he possibly can to give the material emotional weight.

There’s one genuinely poignant exchange between Peter and his mother Agatha (Ann Louise Ross) as she nears the end of her life and there are some nice lines – including one banging joke about Nandos – but none of this is enough to justify or sustain the production over its lengthy running time as it makes the same points again and again. And again.

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James McArdle is the saving grace in a clunky and repetitious satirical update of Ibsen