Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt was reportedly met with hostility by several famous names, including Hans Christian Andersen, when it was first published and performed in 1867. The playwright’s deliberate disregard for the conventions of nineteenth century drama - particularly in constantly shifting the characters through time and space, between dreams and reality - is reinforced in the play itself, when the eponymous Peer refers to Anitra as ‘not quite in accord with the norms of beauty’. He goes on to say ‘But what is beauty? A mere convention’ – one which both Peer and Ibsen are determined to flout.
This production, performed by student company Spiral Staircase Productions, captures the provocative nature of the play and reinvents it for a modern audience, making it just as exhilarating – and at times shocking - almost 150 years after publication.
Tim Kiely makes an excellent Peer, managing to effectively portray the protagonist in several different stages of life and situations. Kiely is equally impressive in moving scenes, such as that in which Peer’s elderly mother, Aase, dies in his arms, and the more energetic scenes featuring the large chorus, who are transformed from trolls to monkeys to patients in a madhouse.
Margherita Philipp is also good, switching between the roles of Aase and young Solveig; though there is not quite enough distinction between the two characters. Kiely and Philipp are supported by the aforementioned chorus, who contribute great energy and passion, though the shouting and chaos created does become a little overwhelming at times.
The greatest asset of this production is the twenty-something strong orchestra that performs the original score by Edvard Grieg. The orchestra is set up above the stage and, together with the lighting, transforms the very simple set. The most compelling scenes are those brought to life by music, such as Peer’s attempts to escape the trolls, accompanied by Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King, and Aase’s passing away, beautifully rendered with the help of the piece Aase’s Death.
It is a play full of contrast and dichotomy, which raises some interesting questions about freedom, personal identity, life and death. These are brought to the fore by the Mountain King, who says that the difference between humans and trolls is that humans live by the motto 'To thyself be true’, whereas trolls say 'Be true to yourself-ish.' Kiely captures Peer’s struggle with this idea well and you leave feeling both reflective and invigorated.
Carly Price (DI Reviewer), 18/11/10
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