Peer Gynt Comes South

‘It’s a play that I’ve always been fascinated by,’ says Dominic Hill about Henrik Ibsen’s controversial play Peer Gynt.  Originally produced at Dundee Rep last season, the production won much acclaim from critics and audiences alike and went on to win a number of CATS awards.  It has been revived, performing at London’s Barbican before embarking on a Scottish tour.

If anything, the play is infamous for being a rather difficult one to stage.  Most modern audiences probably know the play best as a running gag in Willy Russell’s Educating RitaGynt is also not the style of play one usually associates with Ibsen with its use of the fantastical and the absurd, a running time of three hours and a great span in time and locations. 

For Hill, the most difficult job of staging the play came in creating an interesting concept.  ‘Once I’d had the idea about a community to set [the play] in, the idea of a small town in Scotland.  Quite cut off, quite insular.  The idea of someone…who is a sort of fantasist and is destined to escape.  The play then seemed to make sense.’

But Hill wasn’t interested in doing a ‘classic’ version of the play, which he consistently called ‘fascinating’ and ‘frustrating’.  ‘The play seemed very modern and accessible for an audience, and it had a broad appeal.’  In speaking about his vision, Hill was clear in his desire to create a production that was modern and relevant.  ‘I was very keen that the play wasn’t sort of seen as cutesy and rustic.  I was keen that we did something…that felt much harder and harsher and more immediate and gritty.’  He also wanted to make sure that his production focused more on the story and less on the satire that Ibsen was making on his contemporary Norway.

To bring the play to a new audience, Hill wanted to ensure that the translation not only felt modern but encompassed his concepts.  He selected writer Colin Teevan, whom he had worked with before.  Hill was attracted by Teevan’s previous adaptations of classic plays and in the fact that he was a working poet.  In speaking about Teevan, Hill said ‘He’s got a great sense of humour and likes working on a large canvas.’

‘I knew it quite well,’ says Teevan of the original Gynt.  ‘I’d looked at it a few times.  It hadn’t really occurred to me.  It’s not something you would do “on spec”.  You’d have to know who you were doing it for.’  In speaking about the assignment, Teevan says that Hill told him to write a new version that was ‘epic and modern and yet true to its classical roots.’

Teevan appreciated the play before embarking on this new project, but his assignment soon gave him new-found respect for the play.  ‘One of the thrilling things about Peer Gynt is the way it mixes the naturalistic with the fantastical and the Freudian.  It really has everything in there.  And it was great fun to revive not only [Ibsen’s] opinions but to put some of the sexiness back in, which has been lost.’

Taking Hill’s desire of anchoring Gynt to small-town Scotland in a modern way, Teevan began work.  ‘All of [the changes] came about as a result with just applying the notional logic that Dominic initially came up with.  Things like looking at the nature of modern celebrity and asking “what would a troll be today?”.’

Though Hill was very clear in the temperament he wanted the play to be, he still gave Teevan the freedom to create his own version.  ‘Dominic didn’t want an adaptation but wanted to stick quite close to Ibsen, but for it to sound in a new way while still being Ibsen.’  Teevan let his imagination run wild, finding ways of updating Ibsen’s original concepts and incorporating music and songs into the narrative.

Though Hill worked with Teevan in polishing the script prior to rehearsal, Hill still trusted Teevan with his own ideas.  In speaking about the free reign Teevan had, he says that ‘it was lovely being trusted’ while Hill called Teevan’s work ‘fantastic’.

When the play originally went into rehearsal, the creative team had nine weeks, allowing ample time to make discoveries, changes and cuts.  Throughout the rehearsal process, Hill and Teevan worked hard in making Ibsen’s problematic fourth act work.  Originally set on a ship, the action was transferred to an airplane, keeping with Hill’s desire to keep the action modern.  In speaking about the execution of the section, Hill says ‘The original concept used video and cameras, but most of it got stripped away throughout rehearsal.’

The current revival has given the creative team the opportunity to make further changes, but instead the production is virtually the same, with only few slight changes.  ‘Maybe it’s a little bit clearer now,’ says Hill in speaking about how the production has actually matured.  In considering that there has been a slight change in tone and depth, Hill further states that, ‘Maybe it’s a little bit darker than it was before.’

Teevan concurs with Hill, adding that he had only rewritten two tiny sections for clarity and had only cut two other lines.  ‘And yet it is a couple of minutes longer.’  Teevan also mentioned that there had been some modifications in the staging due to the different venues the production will visit but that he looks forward to seeing how audiences in different cities will respond.

Hill also expressed gratitude at how popular the production has become.  ‘I think that it attempts to be a large, great piece of popular epic drama.  It has a lot of music in there, some of it live, a little bit of audience interaction.  It’s so mad and wild and goes through so many kinds of tones and locations that the idea was always that we’d give the audience a kind of extraordinary experience, a sort of three-hour journey.  And I think that that is what we succeeded in doing, and that’s why audiences have responded to it.’

Originally published in June’s edition of The Skinny.

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