Director Lynne Parker follows last year’s misfiring Phaedra with another deeply frustrating combination of theatre and live music…
Arthur Riordan’s rhymed version of Henrik Ibsen’s 1867 farewell to verse drama is underscored by a constant live soundtrack from traditional/jazz quintet Tarab which renders his script as bad rap at its worst and good beat poetry at its best. Talking Movies’ favourite Rory Nolan is our hero Peer Gynt, incarcerated in a lunatic asylum for his Baron Munchausen tendencies, but who continues to spins yarns of his adventures (which are oddly identical to heroic Norwegian folklore) to the disdain of inmates and staff alike. Riordan’s script never addresses this set-up directly though, it’s all only suggested by the costumes. John Comiskey follows last year’s massive stainless steel set with tunnels, narrow windows and video screens for Phaedra with an imposing, stately lunatic asylum set designed with Alan Farquharson. It is equally irrelevant as the characters largely stalk up and down the narrow playing space imagining, and inhabiting, outdoor locations.
Three hours is a hefty running time for a misfiring production, but hysterically the longer second half is far better as it largely dispenses with the conceits that sink the first half. There are only two scenes that work brilliantly in the 75 minute first half, the first and last. Peer’s opening account of chasing a deer thrillingly uses the rhythm of verse and music to conjure up a vivid hunt complete with a hilarious fabulist anti-climax, while his comforting of his dying mother Aase (Karden Ardiff) with a recreation of a childhood fantasy she told him is genuinely tear-jerking. Everything in between doesn’t work. Hilary O’Shaughnessy is too arch for her own good as runaway bride Ingrid, and the slapstick comedy Trolls are merely pointlessly silly. It all leaves you thinking Grieg’s Peer Gynt suite is a better adaptation. The best moments come later on when Tarab’s music stops.
Silence allows the 90 minute second half to begin with hilarious sequences of Nolan and Co discussing demented imperialist plans in half-British accents, before Peer becomes a false prophet, leading to a wonderful sequence in a Cairo lunatic asylum. These sequences, jam-packed with quick costume changes and absurdist props, see Will O’Connell display great comedic flair across multiple roles, before delivering a powerful eulogy at a draft-dodger’s funeral. Fergal McElherron and Peter Daly have their best moments in their smallest roles as the Devil and the Button Moulder, one rejecting Peer for not having sinned enough, the other condemning him to Purgatory for never truly having been himself. Sarah Greene is again scene-stealing, moving wonderfully between the demure Solveig, whose unshakeable love for Peer may yet save him, and an Egyptian dancing-girl alter-ego. Riordan half-attempts to Hibernicise Ibsen but never makes the obvious link to Translations, that escaping material poverty by imaginative fantasy can be equally imprisoning. His script, in its vagueness and prioritisation of rhyme, ultimately resembles Peer’s famous peeling of the onion that symbolises his fabulist personality – no core.
This is slightly better than Phaedra, but Seneca, Racine and Ibsen aren’t to blame when a classic play doesn’t work. Rough Magic’s insertion of pointless live music into half-updated scripts performed on extravagant but irrelevant sets has disappointed two years in a row. Henceforth, this Rough Magic I here abjure…
Peer Gynt continues its run at Belvedere College until October 16th.