David Hare’s adaptation of a traditional Norwegian tale of nationalism and identity is an aimless, rambling story of male mediocrity that fails to introduce anything new to contemporary theatre.
The story follows the eponymous Peter Gynt, a compulsive liar who has returned from the Iraq war, and the various misadventures that he stumbles into on his journey to find self-actualising inner peace. Consistently sour and restless, Peter attempts integration with a troll society, becomes an arms dealer, a prophet in Africa, and much more. Eventually, Peter’s CV is as needlessly long and swollen as the show itself.
At over three hours long, the narrative meanders around and seems unwilling to properly dwell on the issues it raises. It pokes shallow fun at politicians (I think it’s safe to say that including a character with an American accent, bad wig, and orange skin no longer counts as clever satire, and in fact perpetuates the dangerous perception of such a tyrant as nothing but a clown), flippantly brushes over concepts of culture and immigration, and portrays sexist stereotypes under the guise of parodic humour. It feels too easy and expected, and therefore lazy. Furthermore, the general take-away at the end is a bitter, cynical one: life is cruel, trying to be yourself is a one-way ticket to loneliness because nobody will ever understand you, and it’s better to be utterly abhorrent than average.
There is great potential in an adaptation of this story, an opportunity to study what it means to be remembered or create a legacy, and it does not feel reached. To take a story that is originally rooted in the creation of a nation, to inspire a community and forge a sense of place in the world, and turn it into a miserable tale of a miserable man is just confusing. Why this play? Why now? To illustrate to the proportionately upper-middle-class audience that alienation from society causes identity crises? The woman behind me in the interval criticised a black comedienne for being upset about her experiences with racism at another show this Fringe: I really don’t think the story of a wastrel white man finding himself is challenging anyone.
The set design of this production (by Richard Hudson) is undoubtedly fantastic, however. It’s a whimsical playground in which characters pop up out of the ground, burst through doors in the sky, dance and scatter around with abandon. Pastures green are brutally bisected by harsh grey voids, boats, and sharp trees of foreboding woods, which really helps conjure the dramatic and dreamy atmosphere that the play is going for. One minute it’s a dazzling wedding reception, then a chaotic capsized boat, and expertly plays on our suspension of disbelief in fun and interesting ways.
Additionally, James McArdle is a relief. His energy, his delivery, and overall performance are brilliant, never faltering despite the exhausting run time. The final scene of the first act between Peter and his mother is exceptionally performed, managing to toe the line between bittersweet and hilarious that perfectly captures the awkward tenderness we can feel when faced with a tragic situation. Although a line of his directly attacks the obsession of theatre audiences with satisfactory ‘arcs’ for people and stories, it is clear that McArdle is capable of locating the depth and dimensions of Peter that the script unfortunately refuses to allow.
The first Shrek film is 95 minutes long. If you want to watch an outcast Scottish character attempt to discover his place in the world, and find a sense of personal fulfilment, while peeling an onion … stay at home and watch that twice instead.