Saturday, 11 October 2014

Peer Gynt: a man of mourning

Peer Gynt with the Troll’s daughter/Solveig. Photo credit: Monika Rittershaus
Peer Gynt with the Troll’s daughter/Solveig.
Photo credit: Monika Rittershaus
Ibsen Peer Gynt; Théâtre National de Nice; Barbican Theatre
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 8 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Modern fusion - Ibsen's anti-hero re-invented as a modern pop-star

Théâtre National de Nice's interpretation of 'Peer Gynt', based on the play by Henrik Ibsen, at the Barbican centre revamps this timeless Norwegian story of procrastination and remorse. Irina Brook's 21st century vision for Peer (now PG the rock star) includes new poetry by the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Sam Shepard, and songs by Iggy Pop.

The stars of the show were Icelandic Ingvar Eggert Sigurdsson (PG), Indian born dancer Shantala Shivalingappa (Solveig) and the very good Mireille Maalouf (as Peer's long suffering mother) around whom the other characters and musicians revolve. Each of the other characters plays more than one part, or is a musician as well as an actor, depending on the scene's requirements.


First published in 1867, Ibsen's story of 'Peer Gynt' was a sell out success. It was first performed in 1876 to the (now famous) music composed by Edvard Grieg (1843-1907). There is a nod to Grieg in this production, mainly through the use of 'Solveig's song' which recurs in various guises whenever she is on stage, or is being thought about, plus hints of 'In the hall of the mountain king' and 'Anitras' Dance'.

You might think that this is a rock musical – but that is not the case. The music touched on many genres. Yes rock – when PG is a star performing Iggy Pop on stage - but also folk music performed by the wedding band, blues, 1960's big band, New Orleans jazz, Klezmer, a one man band, and something in the style of Chris Rea, all to a backdrop of William Blake's 'Albion Rose' with his arms outstretched – a pose mimicked by Gynt on at least two occasions. Despite the plethora of styles there is wholeness about the music, doubtless generated by the dual musician/actor roles.


Sigurdsson plays Peer from careless young man to bitter, ageing rock star and regretful old man. He is a very physical actor: while his young man was nearer 14 than 20 in his mannerisms, he was able to capture the innocence, or rather naivety since Peer is a philandering liar, of youth, and his old man had slowed without giving up vitality. Opinions seem to be divided about this remake – but when I was not laughing at or with Peer I was carried along by his sorrow.

The company might be French but the actors are from all over the world resulting in an interesting array of accents. There were several Norwegian actors, which, with Icelandic Sigurdsson, lent a Scandinavian feel to the village.

PG the rock star. Photo credit: Monika Rittershaus
PG the rock star. Photo credit: Monika Rittershaus
Mireille Maalouf was gently comedic as Peer's fussing mother. Loving and exasperated with her wayward son, but also the slapstick straightman – Ernie to Peer's Eric. Like the other actors who started out as villagers she was also PG's PR, a troll and other characters in the fantasy elements. Shivalingappa was a quietly strong Solveig, but came into her own as the Troll princess with a dance that reminded me of Cyd Charisse in 'Singing in the rain' – but that might have just been the green dress.

The staging and lighting were simple but effective – a table with cake for the wedding, a pull-along oven for a kitchen, a single chair below a set of moveable stairs for the troll's palace.

Irina Brook's modern vision in no way diminished the power of Ibsen's play, which is that it is an extreme mirror in which the minor hopes and failings of all humanity are reflected. The fusion of Grieg with more modern styles of music paralleled what they were trying to achieve with the new poetry and setting. In her words she believes Peer's journey to be “an illuminating and mystical one” but this is a journey without a happy ending, the man portrayed here would not willingly accept redemption.

The Ibsen season at the Barbican continues with a few more nights of 'Peer Gynt' followed by 'The Wild Duck', performed by Belvoir Sydney, towards the end of the month.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover
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