“People don’t have lives anymore. They have stories.”
“It goes to show. Do something real and nobody’s convinced.”
We live in a world obsessed with storytelling. Every day via the lens of social media we spin our yarns and tell our truths. We showcase our youth and beauty. We share the day to day minutia of our lives to an unseeing audience. We revel in our successes, our possessions, our status. We showcase our exotic travels and our attempts to better our inner selves. We raise up thoroughly ordinary people living thoroughly ordinary lives as heroes and then dash them down just as quickly when someone takes against them because who doesn’t love a little influencer drama. We follow peoples lives as if they were characters in a story that we feel entitled to tell. We are constantly trying to better ourselves. We eat clean, eat lean, do HIIT, meditate, remind ourselves that we need to seek the views of those outside our bubble. We’re always striving for more. To do more, be more, to be anything but mediocre.
And it’s all just a lie. We offer up a carefully curated view of our lives with all the difficulties hidden away from view. We rigidly control our own narrative so that no-one sees that we’re all just a mess, with absolutely no clue what we’re doing, trying to muddle through life the best that we possibly can.
These themes echo through Peter Gynt David Hare’s ambitious, overlong, modern adaptation of Ibsen’s surrealist sprawling fantasy Peer Gynt. Directed by Jonathan Kent, Peter Gynt (as our hero is now called) is now a Scottish man and serial fantasist – “the sort of man who sees Star Wars and thinks he’s Obi-Wan Kenobi”. Played by James McArdle (in a supernova of a performance) we first see Peter returning from war and spilling completely outrageous tales of his bravery to his mother (Ann Louise Ross – superb in a flinty yet very human performance). She’s savvy enough to his storytelling ways to see through his nonsense and bemoans the fact that he’s never grown up. Peter, aggrieved at discovering that his ex Ingrid is due to be married to “the stupidest man in town” resolves to crash the wedding. The townsfolk don’t like Peter. They despair of his lies and mock the only honest thing about him – his hobby of making buttons. At the wedding, he briefly meets cute with Sabine, a new immigrant to the town. There follows some of the worst “I am man you are woman” dialogue an actor has ever been forced to spout which rather astonishingly leads Sabine to believe that Peter has the ability to be someone better than he is. Peter absconds with the bride, meets and makes hay with a trio of rhinestoned cowgirls and visits a group of trolls who are a not tremendously subtle riff on the Bullingdon Club. After his reunion with a now very starry-eyed Sabine is cut short by the re-appearance of the Green Woman Peter is forced to leave Sabine behind – leaving to seek his fortune elsewhere.
Over the course of the play, we see Peter become a Trump-like mega capitalist whose fortune comes from arms dealing and who has a Murdoch style business empire. After all that vanishes courtesy of corrupt businessmen he enjoys a brief stint as a guru and the Emperor of Self before returning home, old, lonely and embittered to meet the Button Moulder (Oliver Ford Davies) who horrifies him by pointing out that for all his swagger Peter really has lived a very small life.
James McArdle is astonishing as Peter Gynt. It’s a complete beast of a role moving from young (almost likable) lad to bitter old man over the course of 3 and a half hours. I first became aware of him having seen him as Louis in Angels in America and he was my reason for booking this. McArdle never tries to make Peter likable but plays him as charming, silly, awkward, funny, distraught, venal, confused, lonely and desperate and all the many shades in-between. He holds the (increasingly weary) audience in the palm of his hand throughout. In lesser hands, I think the play would be unwatchable. Certainly, I’m not sure I would have stayed to the end if he wasn’t playing the central role. As it is he keeps the whole thing afloat by pretty much sheer force of will. While charismatic and very funny (and a pretty nifty dancer in the weird song and dance scenes sprinkled throughout) his best sequences are the quieter, more emotional ones. The best scenes in the play are Peter using his storytelling skills for good as he comforts his dying mother weaving a beautiful image of her ascension to heaven and an ageing embittered Peter railing against the mediocrity of his small life.
There is strong support from Jonathan Coy in multiple roles and Oliver Ford Davies who brings a transfixing stillness as the Button Moulder. Guy Henry camps it up in his multiple roles and frequently looks like he’s wandered in from another play but it’s certainly never less than entertaining.
And no one can say that they didn’t commit to the production- the always impressive set ranges from mountains to a golf course, to the desert to a ship without missing a beat with heavy use of projections conveying a suitable fairytale-like atmosphere.
There is no getting away from the fact that it is wildly overlong at 3 and a half hours. Sorry did I say overlong? I meant it’s the length of a bible. Ice ages are shorter. Now I love storytelling that takes its time as much as the next girl but expecting a London audience to spend 3 and a half hours on a pleasant summer evening watching the tale of an over-entitled, slightly unpleasant white man trying to work out the meaning of life is a very big ask. Especially when the cast doesn’t contain a single name. You can sell out a 7-hour treatise on AIDS in a day if your cast features a Broadway legend and a Hollywood A-lister but while this certainly deserves to be a star-making vehicle for James McArdle he is not yet a name Joe Bloggs is going to book for.
All credit to the National Theatre and Jonathan Kent for avoiding stunt casting but it is a show that sheds some of its less committed audience members as it unfurls. There is no question it would have been a far stronger piece overall if someone from the National had sat David Hare down, taught him about how internet banking and offshore bank accounts work (yes I know it’s stupid to be annoyed that the crooks steal Gynt’s money by simply guessing his Macbook password but come on…) and encouraged him to cut almost all of the weak and meandering second act which is stuffed with song and dance numbers which add very little to the equation. Doing away with the second act pretty much entirely would have made for a much more audience-friendly and more coherent piece.
It’s also a shame that in updating Gynt for modern times Hare didn’t see fit to flesh out Sabine a little more. I know that in fairytales boy and girl meet-cute and decide in 5 minutes that they are the others true love but the relationship is bordering on the ridiculous here. Peter in the few minutes he knows Sabine is unpleasantly grabby and spouts crap that would make most women run screaming and yet it’s enough for Sabine to fall wildly in love with him and put her entire life on hold waiting decades for him to return to her. Anya Chalotra does her best with what she’s given but her relationship with Peter never once rings true.
Peter Gynt is a funny, challenging, absolute marathon of a play anchored by a staggering turn from James McArdle in the central role. We should praise the National for putting on something so cheerfully batshit and given McArdle’s talents a place to shine.
Peter Gynt plays at the National Theatre for another week before transferring to the Edinburgh International Festival and returning to the National in August.