Theatre Review: Peter Gynt, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

David Hare brings Ibsen to the 21st Century with Peter Gynt

James McArdle as Peter. Picture: Greg Macvean
James McArdle as Peter. Picture: Greg Macvean

David Hare’s new 21st century version of Peer Gynt – which takes triumphantly to the Festival Theatre stage as one of the opening productions of this year’s International Festival – is about as free an adaptation of Ibsen’s great 1867 epic as an audience could wish to see. Lavishly updated to a world of laptops, global financial markets, and dodgy western intervention in conflicts between two types of Islam, this co-production between the National Theatre in London and the Edinburgh International Festival is given a strong contemporary Scottish accent that fits like a glove around Ibsen’s tale of a rural wide-boy turned global imperialist, and plays a joyful game of fast and loose with some of the detail of Ibsen’s story, while remaining true to its basic three-act structure.

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Peter Gynt, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh ****

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So it is both remarkable and thrilling to discover that the main impact of Jonathan Kent’s spectacular production – with massive, dream-like sets by Richard Hudson – is to remind us of the sheer enduring brilliance, and continuing power, of Ibsen’s original vision. At a moment of civilisational crisis brought about by uncontrolled greed and power-hunger, and often driven by toxic ideas about masculinity, it is breathtakingly impressive to see how accurately Ibsen foresaw both the crisis, and the psychological detail of the cult of individualism that would bring it about.

Kent’s production slightly loses focus and shape during the long spiritual coda of the third act. Yet for most of its three and a half hours, it remains a brilliant and often hilarious account of a male life run off course and then redeemed at the last; all built around a fascinating, complex, vulnerable and very funny central performance from James McArdle, with magnificent support from Ann Louise Ross as his indomitable, scathing yet loving mother, and Anya Chalotra as Sabine, who waits for Peter through a long lifetime, singing a heart-stoppingly beautiful song as she goes.