I recently saw Present Laughter at the Old Vic, a story about a man trying to be greater than his present circumstances.
In some of the dialogue, some supporting characters dig at the lead about the fact he could never pull off doing Peter Gynt. I was grateful to be able to see it at the National and, therefore, understand why. It is a cerebral journey through the world and life and the mad mad mad instances that occur on a daily that we just accept without ever calling out the sheer absurdity of it.
Peter, a man recently returned from war, where he hoped to discover his greatness or a part of his legacy, instead realises that to “become” and find meaning in life, he must sacrifice love, which, ultimately, he comes to uncover where the meaning of life is. It is a call to arms by Ibsen to never live the “medium” existence. Be fully good or fully bad, but most certainly be full in your living.
This modern adaptation is wild indeed. Even for Ibsen. But it was a work from an earlier part of his writing career and it is clear to see a lot of himself in Gynt. Therefore the self reflectivity of this and by the end of the first third of the play, it feels like nothing has happened, but yet, so much has occurred and you are still hooked. This is testament to the strength and sheer relentlessness of James McArdle as an actor. It is his story and he very deservedly holds and keeps the audience.
Anya Chalotra was also spectacular as Sabine. She embodied everything good in literal, metaphorical and physical form for Gynt, being the love he found and foolishly left behind for the riches of this world. She facilitated his story beautifully being a breath of calm, fresh air to all the madness going on everywhere else in this story.
The middle of Peter Gynt is much more about themes than the story. Depending on what you go to the theatre for, it may be for you or it may not. I personally think it depends on what life has thrown at you before. All the themes are recognisable, but I felt they were too many to tackle all in one hour. The world did not throw these issues at me all at once, why should a play?
I loved this story. It was a beautiful criticism of our world and how we are taught to live. I just wish it was longer than the three hours we got with it. Massive props to Jonathan Kent for keeping us so brilliantly riveted.
Peter Gynt runs at the National Theatre until 8th October 2019. Find out more and book tickets here.