Review – Peer Gynt – National Theatre of Scotland and Dundee Rep Ensemble at the Barbican


On Thursday night J and I went to the Barbican to see the National Theatre of Scotland and Dundee Rep Ensemble‘s production of Peer Gynt. I was excited about this show for two main reasons. First, I love Ibsen, and I have never seen Peer Gynt before. Second, the National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch was supposed to be one of the theatrical events last year, and since I’d missed out on it, I wanted to see just what made this company’s work so outstanding. High hopes, eh? And I’d managed to score 8th row center seats, probably the best I’ve ever had at the Barbican.

The stage is fully opened and very bare as the story starts. The Barbican’s main stage is just a barn, and it really makes it difficult to get an intimacy to the proceedings with the 50 foot tall rafters looming above. A table and a chair or two stood in front of what looked like a billboard of the fjords of Norway; to the sides, a lowered area held chairs and what looked like about 16 people (8 on each side), sitting in chairs, who appeared to be fresh from a wedding party or hen do (the trampy clothing of the woman were confusing me but one woman was in her bridal gear); behind the wall a ramp led some two stories up from the rest of the proceedings, to a platform that looked like rather a drop to the floor below. In front of the billboard, a man dressed all in white (Cliff Burnett, sort of a cross between Nick Cave and Colonel Sanders) was playing an accordion, but he moved off stage as Peer Gynt (Keith Fleming in a tour-de-force performance) appeared, being bawled out by his old mom (Ann Louise Ross) for disappearing on a bender.

Peer Gynt looks to be an out of shape man in his middle 20s, and there’s no doubt in my mind that his character is truly a touchstone of Western play writing. I can’t speak to Ibsen’s original, but this Gynt was a grandiose drunk prone to big dreams (singing “Peer Gynt the emperor” to a tune by the Pet Shop Boys) and telling ridiculous stories to mask his shortcomings. And his shortcomings are many; no job, no girlfriend, mocked by the town (played by the wedding guests, who make snorting noises when they see him), his family’s money dwindling around him. His mom wants him to use his limited charms to actually pull the only girl in town who likes him enough to marry him, just to save her from financial ruin; but Gynt is terminally incapable of following through on any plan, even if it’s only one that would take a few hours to execute.

What he does truly excel at is storytelling, even if it’s clear that the yarns he spins are nothing but lies, tales he’s often heard elsewhere and then tried to sell as his own (as he is caught doing several times). He starts the play out taking his mom on a magic reindeer ride (on the top of a spotlit table), telling her how he rode one across hill and dale and finally down over the edge of a cliff, plunging through clouds of seagulls as he fell, a moment of storytelling and dramatic imagery that actually set the wrong stage for the evening, as this was the very best moment of the entire play, when two people standing on a table created a forest with trees and giant stags in my mind simply through their words, and nothing that happened for the rest of this evening, an evening focused on spectacle over drama, would come near it.

I want to emphasize just how much of a spectacle this evening was. I saw many things I’d never seen on a stage before: a hanged man disco-dancing; a person having a near-death experience in a plane while being seduced by a demon; the lead character being sexually assaulted by a person in a gorilla suit; a woman giving birth to a wriggling piglet. I mean, WOW, there was so much going on stage – so much that I lost my ability to care about anything I was watching around about the second hour (despite going, “Wow, never seen that before. How long is this play again?”).

Peer Gynt, touchstone of Western drama that he is, is a hard character to like, as all anti-heroes are, but I felt like I should have been more emotionally invested in what was happening to and around him. But I couldn’t rouse myself to care about Gynt any more than he could rouse himself to fix his life. The pretty girl he loved, the strange journey through his future, all of the madness with trolls … none of it moved me. It’s like somehow amidst the cavernous spaces of the Barbican’s stage, the story just got lost. Maybe it was hiding under a pile of trolls. Really, I didn’t care; I just wanted it to be over, or to get interesting again, but it didn’t happen.

Needless to say, I was disappointed by this show, even while I was occasionally impressed by its scale and vision. But like Gynt himself, Peer Gynt would have benefited from focusing on having a focus instead of flailing all over the place in a desperate attempt to make and be something grand. At three hours and eight minutes running time, it just doesn’t reward its investment. I’ll be waiting for a real production to come by and advising people to skip this.

(This review is for a show on Thursday the 30th of April, 2009. It continues through May 16th. For other opinions, see < ahref=”;)View from the Stalls and the London Theatre Blog.

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10 Responses to “Review – Peer Gynt – National Theatre of Scotland and Dundee Rep Ensemble at the Barbican”

  1. Statler Says:

    Finally. We’ve been waiting for two years since we commented on the original presentation of this NTS/Dundee Rep production for someone else to question if it’s really the wonderful piece of theatre the Scottish Critics seemed to believe it to be.

    Thank you!

  2. Andrew Eglinton Says:

    This is an epic review for what sounds like an epic show and all I can think of is how would a hanged man go about disco dancing! I’ve got tickets for Tuesday night and I haven’t been this excited to see a show since Deep Cut at the Tricycle. I hope they’ve tightened the pace on act 4 by the time I get there. We’ll see. I’m trying to keep an open mind…

    On another note, I can’t believe I’ve only just come across your blog. You’ve been writing this since late 2005! I started London Theatre Blog pretty much at the same time. I’m adding you to the LTB resource page. Happy theatre-going!

    • webcowgirl Says:

      Well, I have entries dating back to 2005 but they are from my other blog – this one’s only been around since November 2007. Thanks, though!

  3. Austin Low Says:

    I’d strongly disagree with your review. The following statement confirms that you can’t have understood what you saw:

    Peer Gynt would have benefited from focusing on having a focus instead of flailing all over the place in a desperate attempt to make and be something grand”

    You obviously totally missed the point of the entire character which is why you didn’t enjoy it.

    • webcowgirl Says:

      I’m afraid you missed my point, as I was referring to the production and not the character.

  4. Riccardo Says:

    I agree with everything you say, CG. I saw it last night in Glasgow and thought it was an interesting production but not engaging (and overlong). Very unlike “A View From The Bridge” which I saw a couple of weeks ago at the same theatre. It was brilliant!

  5. Alice Torrance Says:

    Saw this version in Glasgow. I agree the table top storytelling was brilliant. We felt first half was long and we preferred older Peer. Overall I loved the updated version of this classic and was not at all concerned with “liking” the very shallow Peer Gynt. Stellar performances from all the cast, bizarre settings and brilliant costuming kept us highly entertained.

  6. Late summer 2009 theater schedule « Life in the Cheap Seats – Webcowgirl’s London theatre reviews Says:

    […] a new show, Jerusalem (at the Royal Court), that I’m hoping will take the tang of the crappy Peer Gynt I saw away (and have also apparently saved me from seeing The Black Album – I want to see new […]

  7. Review – Ghosts – Arcola Theatre « Life in the Cheap Seats – Webcowgirl’s London theatre reviews Says:

    […] of course (if you’ve been reading this blog for long), interested because of my deep love of Ibsen’s work (and previous mostly successful interpretations of Ibsen by the Arcola) – and then […]

  8. Mini-review – Jerusalem – Royal Court Jerwood Theatre « Life in the Cheap Seats – Webcowgirl’s London theatre reviews Says:

    […] myself more attracted to brevity in writing about it as a change of pace. Jerusalem is what the Scottish Peer Gynt wishes it had been: a long visit with a trailer-dwelling rascal that never wears out its welcome. […]

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