When a teenage girl in Michael Wynne's play The People Are Friendly (seen last year at the Royal Court) declares, "I'm gonna be famous," it is not a cherished dream but simply a career choice. This is director David Levin's perspective on Ibsen's Peer Gynt: that it speaks more than ever to a contemporary culture to which celebrity is not an ambition so much as another lifestyle option. Levin, former artistic director the Habima national theatre of Israel, has made his first British production for the impecunious but adventurous Arcola Theatre, housed in a converted clothing factory in Dalston, to celebrate its second anniversary.
The traverse staging both allows Peer's life to be seen explicitly as a journey along the long, narrow path between the banks of spectators to a destination never adequately determined, and means that the audience can watch each other watching, as banal mini-celebrities. Paul Burgess's design is a kind of "poor theatre" with a quid or two in reserve, as thrift-shop costumes rub up against a huge wood-and-plaster Sphinx head.
As young Peer (during the first half), Jon Millington strikes the right note: not grand in his declarations and fantasising, but good-natured, almost casual, yet with his eyes still focused that little bit in the distance beyond his Norwegian village. He gives the requisite sincerity to the character's moments of doubt and supposed recantation, and is especially fine with the mixture of exuberance and introspection that is Peer's tale to his mother on her death-bed; however, it is always clear that he will continue on his feckless wanderings.
After the interval, the estimable Hilton McRae takes over in the role. McRae's Peer has deepened with age, acquiring more flair, a more playful delivery and the suggestion of slightly greater insight into himself (insofar as he has a fixed Self to be pondered... which is, of course, the whole point of the play), as the episodic action grows more disparate: Peer as global tycoon, as bamboozled, lecherous prophet, as unwilling guest of honour in a madhouse.
Of the relatively huge supporting cast (sixteen other players sharing seventy-odd roles), Indra Ové shimmies perniciously as the acolyte Anitra, Fleur Chandler is too melodramatic and wandering-accented as Peer's mother, and Peter Winnall shifts from comedy-Kraut headshrinker to mysterious grey-clad figure with efficiency, although playing the Button Moulder as a rather prim bureaucrat feels out of keeping with the folksy straightforwardness of this quasi-angelic character at the close of the piece.
This is the fourth Peer Gynt I have seen on stage in the last decade, and while others may have made much play of modish multimedia components to locate themselves in the present, Levin's percipience about the fabric of our own society makes his production ring more true and immediate.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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