Review - Peter Gynt starring James McArdle at the National Theatre

Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton

I'm not going to deny that Ibsen's Peer Gynt - here retitled Peter Gynt in David Hare's modern re-framing - is an epic slog. It's a collection of vignettes as a man trudges on an existential crisis through his life, trying to find its essential meaning, against the odds of crises, large and small.

These include a very moving scene as he comforts his dying mother (and as someone who witnessed my own mother's death last November, this spoke to me with a profound truth and feeling), and surviving both a plane crash and a shipwreck (both events brilliantly staged in Richard Hudson's sets and Dick Straker's video design).

But as much as the play is, at times, seriously bonkers, it's also a unique parable for our times, and in Hare's version, which sweeps from Scotland to Egypt and Florida, it offers a disturbing, sweeping portrait of a global elite traversing the globe from Davros to a private golf course that our hero comes to own. It inevitably raises the spectre of Trump and Brexit along the way, without specifically invoking either.

Partly urban myth, partly a psychological fantasia, it's exactly the sort of challenging building block of world drama that the National is there to provide us with access to, and probably alone can offer the resources to populate as thrillingly as it does here. That it may well empty the Olivier this summer, either side of a side-trip to the Edinburgh International Festival where it is one of the centrepieces in August, is beside the point; it is nevertheless remarkable to find it here.

So all credit to the National's artistic director Rufus Norris for a bold, risky piece of programming, and to director Jonathan Kent and regular writing collaborator David Hare for not being daunted by the challenge of staging the seemingly unstageable, and making such surprisingly cogent sense of it. It is illuminated, in particular, by a heroic performance, in every sense, from James McArdle in the title role as he charts Gynt's journey across continents and time.

It's by no means an easy watch, but this entirely watchable production both surprises and illuminates a play that I've previously thought was impossible to actually enjoy.

Peter Gynt is at the National Theatre until 8th October. 

Peter Gynt tickets are available now. 

Originally published on

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