Review: Peer Gynt ~ theatre notes

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Review: Peer Gynt

Peer Gynt. What a loser! Liar, narcissist, storyteller, dreamer, wild boy, arms dealer, Emperor of the Self, so fixated on his own desires that he loses himself altogether. Sinless because there isn't enough of him to sin with. He's saved by a song. (Or is he?) Saved by love. (Or is he?) Kept alive in the heart of a woman. Or was that him? Did he exist? (Do any of us exist?) What is he doing in this work of theatre? Is it a work of theatre? What is a work of theatre?

Who is Peer Gynt? He doesn't know. He jumped out of the brain of a Norwegian playwright one hot summer in 1867. Henrik Ibsen was an expatriate in Italy, then in the midst of war: as Garibaldi marched against Rome to eliminate the Papacy, Ibsen grumbled his way through various Italian beauty spots, his crazy epic poem spiralling recklessly out of the brutally hot sirocco that hit Ischia that year, so that he rose in his nightshirt sometimes because his head was so full of verse, writing down his octosyllabics and decasyllabics, the iambics, trochaics, dactylics, anapaestics and amphibrachs that all translators claim are impossible to translate into English. On a day of 46 degrees, Ibsen sent the first three acts to his publisher. After a minor earthquake sparked his famous physical cowardice, Ibsen fled Ischia for Sorrento, then Naples and Pompeii, and finally Rome, where he finished the poem in October. It was published in Scandinavia a month later.

Unlike Ibsen's previous epic Brand, which featured a noble protagonist, Peer Gynt met mixed responses. The poem was eviscerated by Norway's most influential critic, Clemens Petersen, who called it an "intellectual swindle", and declared that it was not poetry. Georg Brandes, another critic, said: "Ibsen's poem is neither beautiful nor true; what acrid pleasure can any poet find in defiling humanity like this?" After his fury (Ibsen was a bitter hater of his critics), his most illuminating answer to his critics is in an inscription he wrote in a book: "To live is to war with trolls in heart and soul. / To write is to sit in judgement on oneself."

In all its unstageable recklessness, Peer Gynt is a pitiless self-portrait of a man fleeing the most essential conflicts within himself, endlessly seduced by his own trolls. Ibsen wasn't admired by people like James Joyce or Sigmund Freud for no reason: he was one of the first modern writers to externalise the demons of the unconscious, and Peer Gynt was the first of his extended explorations of the potent truths of nightmare and fantasy, the trolls beneath the skin of mundane reality.

Its fantastic elements mean that Peer Gynt is, like Goethe's Faust, famously unstageable. (Hence the joke in Educating Rita: How does one solve the staging problems in Peer Gynt? Answer: Do it on the radio.) In fact, in his astonishing production at the Victorian College of the Arts, it's debatable whether Daniel Schlusser has staged the play at all. He has rather conducted a parallel examination to Ibsen's of himself. He delves beneath the skin of Ibsen's text, reaching into its prior impulses in an attempt to summon the demons that lurk in contemporary realities. This production of Peer Gynt ambitiously extends the explorations begun in Schlusser's productions of A Dollhouse and Life is a Dream. Here Ibsen's savage nightmare becomes a haunting, fragmentary and hallucinatory, that spirals out of a distorted quotidian mundanity.

For the first 45 minutes, the play exists only in a snatched phrase or two, a scrawl of graffiti on the wall, a jokey reference to Grieg's famous music. The set - an extraordinary over-the-top design in day-glo colours by Anna Cordingley, mainly fashioned out of dozens of balloons - stretches the length of the studio theatre. On stage are a red sports car, a combi van, a blue swimming pool, banana lounges, a table. Nothing happens for a time, aside from some outrageously kitsch music and the sounds of magpies carolling (it is morning). A man stumbles out of the combi van and shuffles about the stage. He wakes a woman who is sleeping in the sports car. He gets a beer. Several beers. One by one, various actors in a confusion of costumes - a woman in white twinset and sunglasses carrying suitcases, a man in a panama hat, women in bikinis, a man in football beanie and shorts, people on motorbikes and bicycles - enter the stage. Some leave and return, some stay and fuss about with the banana lounges, opening champagne bottles, greeting each other with squeals of pleasure, gossiping inaudibly.

Gradually we understand, from fragments of conversation that we overhear as if by accident, that people are gathering for the rehearsal of a wedding. It's a wedding in which there is conflict; the bride is unhappy and keeps bursting into tears. Still the actors' movements are mysterious: they eddy about the stage, inscrutably private. It is as if we were watching a party from an elevated angle. And this is sustained for much longer than seems possible, flirting with the edges of frustration. Always, just as you begin to lose patience, something else catches up your attention: a man enters with an enormous bag of balloons and fills the swimming pool, or a fight breaks out, or a woman runs away crying.

Where, you begin to wonder, is Peer Gynt? And then you realise he is the skinny young man causing trouble at the edges of the gathering. And out of what seem like random swirls of activity, a story begins to emerge. It's the story of Peer Gynt, radically translated into contemporary symbols, barely recognisable but nonetheless present, through a glass darkly. The wedding is - or is like - the wedding at the beginning of the poem, in which Gynt's sweetheart is married unwillingly to the local butcher, and runs off with him for the night, causing his banishment. Imperceptibly, we find we are watching a double reality, a mundane and ugly reality that is infected by images from a dream.

At about this point the dream begins to shift to the foreground: the lighting states shift from general to specific, and fragments from the play begin to be enacted, spiralling out of the banal event we have been watching. It's never quite pinned down, and the reality is never quite stable. But from this fascinating confusion emerges moments of strange, almost surreal clarity that reflexively are excavated from the superficial and strangely heartless social occasion we've been witnessing. Peer Gynt himself (a marvellous performance by Kyle Baxter) stands out in relief at last against the action; he meets the trolls, he is mocked by a nameless voice wanting to know who he is, and he discovers, over an epic and strange journey to material success, that he has no idea who he is. He is, he finds, as empty as the middle of an onion: beneath all the layers that he is created of himself, he is nothing.

The urgency beneath the performance is a questioning of authenticity: of experience, of art. For all its fantastic nature and bizarre incongruities, what makes this show compulsively watchable is a profound veracity in its performances and intellectual exploration which is, all the same, radically dislocated from any sense of literal truth. It's most true to Ibsen's text in its poetic vision, how it has burrowed into and exploded the metaphors in the play, returning them to a surprising and vexed sense of truthfulness. It is an excoriating expose of the culture of narcissism that is nevertheless not without compassion, attending closely to the trivial details out of which people construct meaning.

In some ways, this production seems like a defiant wrenching of richness from a wide menu of emotional poverties. The ambiguity of the ending is telling: Schlusser pushes the sentiment of the love story between Peer and Solveig to the risible, placing them next to a giant pink heart made of balloons as Solveig sings a folksong of aching loveliness. And yet out of this extreme collision of kitsch, this strange wedding of contradictions, emerges a sharp splinter of real feeling; a glimpse, however ambiguous, of salvation.

Schlusser's re-blending of Peer Gynt is mischievous, beguiling and ultimately haunting, demonstrating that an act of creation is always simultaneously an act of destruction. He gets away with it because of the quality of attention in the direction: the stage is always focused, always dynamic, with a spatial discipline that recalls dance. If you expect to see a respectful performance of Ibsen's text, you'll be disappointed: the text is rather a provocation or occasion for thought. What you get instead is the chance to watch the continuing evolution of a fascinating investigation, in one of the most deeply interesting works of theatre you'll see in Melbourne this year.

Picture: Kevin Fa’asitua Hofbauer and Kyle Baxter in Peer Gynt. Photo: Jeff Busby

Peer Gynt by Henrik Ibsen, directed by Daniel Schlusser. Set and costumes by Anna Cordingley, lighting design by Kimberley Kwa, sound design and composition by Nick van Cuylenburg and Martin Kay. With VCA Acting Company 2009 and VCA Alumni. Space 28, Victorian College of the Arts, until April 1.


Troubador said...

That Educating Rita joke reminded me of my favourite theatrical put-down ever. It involved a play by a prominent Aussie writer who shall remain nameless. The show was scheduled to go on at Playbox in the eighties. A set designer was given the script. After she read it she was asked by the management, "How would you design this play?" She responded by saying "I'd build a brick wall between the audience and the stage".

Geoffrey said...

Magnificent! That makes my day.

Anonymous said...

God you do this well, Croggon. Describe the indescribable. Same as you did with Avast.

Anonymous said...

Troubie, was it Ron Elisha? Barry Dickins? Go on, tell!

Alison Croggon said...

No, don't tell, because I might be taken to court...!

I don't know who it is and it would be fun to hear. But Ron Elisha has already sued me once.

Alison Croggon said...

...and thanks Anon.

Troubador said...

Ron Elisha? Barry Dickins?

Cold. Cold.

My new year's resolution was that I'd avoid making disparaging comments about anyone while using a pseudonym. Admittedly I've already had the odd lapse (it's April already, I'm not Superman) so as a consequence I've had electrodes attached to certain parts of my anatomy to remind me when I'm about to cross the line.

So it wasn't Elisha or Dickins and no further correspondence will be entered into. Even though Elisha's Esterhaz is certainly worthy of - aargh!!

Sorry...I repeat, it wasn't Elisha or Dickens.

(Need a cigarette now.)

Troubador said...

To clarify, I mean I won't disparage anyone by name while using a pseudonym.

Troubador said...

Oh dammit! It was - AARGH!

Anonymous said...

Esterhaz, hell. I'd forgotten all about Playbox's "off off" (no, just off!) productions at Anthill.

Thanks for reminding me. Harrumph.

Anonymous said...

Wonder if youve heard the Peer Gynt piece.. Might put things in a new light :)

Anonymous said...

umm wasn't playbox's Esterhaz in the Merlyn not Anthill?

Alison Croggon said...

It was indeed in the Merlyn. As I remember well. That, incidentally, was a review I was sued for, so I am well up on defamation law these days...

Unknown said...

sticking to the point - as hilarious as the above is - this Peer was truly extraordinary. I'm still processing it and very jealous of those students (and graduates) who performed in it. Smart, sexy and theatrically searching. Glad you loved it to AC.