Review: Peter Gynt at the Festival Theatre
4★★★★

David Hare’s inspired reworking of Peer Gynt turns Ibsen’s 1867 verse-play into a fable for the modern age. The outline of the plot has been retained, but the action has been shifted forward 150 years from the mountains of Norway to the west coast of Scotland. Peer, now reborn as Peter, is a soldier back from the war, whose breathless tales of bravery are quickly revealed for what they are – the plot of The Guns of Navarone. Most egos would be deflated by such a swift puncturing, but not Peter’s, and that unshakable self-belief and vivid imagination are about to lead him into a whole heap of trouble.

James McArdle, familiar to Edinburgh audiences for his memorable performance as James I in 2014, excels as the slippery, charming, charismatic Peter as we follow his lifelong struggle for self-knowledge. A narcissist, a seducer, a fantasist convinced he’s destined for greatness, Ibsen’s self-obsessed hero is a man for our own times. “If I can’t be exceptional, I don’t want to be,” he proudly admits. Remind you of anyone? The parallel between Peter and our current crop of political leaders is obvious, but he is equally a reflection of our age of rampant individualism, where social media gives us all the ability to present only the most enhanced version of ourselves. 

For all its brilliance, the play is flawed. At three and a half hours long, it can’t help but sag in places, with some scenes feeling unnecessarily drawn out or even redundant. The sheer number of different elements that are crammed in – political satire, big musical numbers, black comedy, magic realism and many others – means the tone is somewhat uneven too. But the energy and exuberance of McArdle’s performance keeps the whole thing afloat. He really is superb.

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