Peer Gynt ****1/2

Eighteen months ago, Dominic Hill’s final production with Dundee Rep made impressive waves.  It won lots of acclaim and awards and served as an effective swansong for Hill’s tenure at Dundee before taking artistic directorship of the Traverse.

After a stint in London, Hill’s production of Peer Gynt is back in Scotland for a limited tour.  A co-production between Dundee Rep and the National Theatre of Scotland, Gynt is an impressive theatrical tour de force that proves that this ‘unstageable’ play can make for brilliant theatre when put in the hands, and financial backing, of talented practitioners.

Gynt is probably best known as the difficult play in Henrik Ibsen’s cannon and a punch line in Willy Russell’s Educating Rita.  It follows the life of an anti-hero whose tendency to tell tall tales has made him an outcast in his community.  Reality and imagination constantly trade places, coming to a major collusion in the end when Gynt is forced to justify his life.

For this new version, Hill asked playwright Colin Teevan to adapt Ibsen’s original.  This decision proved to be the production’s greatest idea, for Teevan has turned a difficult, multi-threaded lyrical play into a modern morality tale with language that’s about as blue and explicit as one could imagine and has clever reinterpretations of the original’s multiple settings.  The choices may offend some and send traditionalist up the proverbial wall, but what it does is make the story both relevant and thrilling to listen to.  This production’s Gynt, with his frequent profanity, constant urge to drink and screw-anything-that-moves mentality, makes for a believable character in need of salvation.

And Hill is equally imaginative in his staging.  Much of the pleasure that comes in watching this production is in witnessing the raw energy and the constantly surprising staging choices.  It feels more like a punk rendition than a new version.

It also has some fantastic performances.  The ensemble work is consistently excellent, but there are some notable standouts, including Cliff Burnett as The Button Man, Irene Macdougall as both Kati and the Interviewer and Ann Louise Ross as Aase.  But the production belongs to both Keith Fleming and Gerry Mulgrew, who share the difficult titular role, with Fleming playing the young bucking Peer and Mulgrew playing the slightly more stable but equally commanding older version.

However, this is not a perfect production.  As inventive as the staging is, the directional flash does sometimes get in the way of character and plot.  There are many scenes that make little sense, even if they are impressive to watch.  And those unfamiliar with this play but knowledgeable of Ibsen’s classic work will be surprised by the character of Solveig, who is mostly the antithesis of Ibsen’s great feminist characters.  Actress Ashley Smith does a good job in portraying the character, but the production mostly sidelines her in favour of the more colourful supporting cast.

Still, this is a thrilling production that does not feel like the three-hour epic it is.  It is consistently inventive and has a rawness that is unfortunately rare in modern theatre.  It may not be a ‘classic’ rendition nor may it be a production that could be repeated as effectively a few years down the line.  Instead, this is a Peer Gynt meant for now.  And for that, it comes highly recommended.

Playing at the Theatre Royal in Glasgow until June 27, 2009.

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