The Berliner Ensemble was for decades associated intimately with the work of Bertolt Brecht. It's not the sort of company you'd expect to work a soda-siphon gag into a production. Still less when the play in question is by Henrik Ibsen, who is unlikely ever to have been known by his fellow Norwegians as "Chuckles".
This is, of course, a little unfair to Ibsen, especially when the play is Peer Gynt. It may be concerned at bottom with Peer's lifetime of efforts to stay true to himself without ever identifying who or what his Self is, but many of the episodes themselves have a grotesque or sometimes a downright rollicking humour. In Act Three Peer mutates at high speed from global tycoon to cut-price, lecherous prophet to the "emperor" of an insane asylum. It's played with a top-gear gusto which may owe something to the fact that director Peter Zadek first learned his craft some 50-odd years ago in British weekly rep. The act benefits from this "bash it out and hurry on" spirit, and the play as a whole (written to be read rather than staged, and running some five or six hours unabridged) has been cut rather less than usual in order to squeeze into three and a quarter hours.
Zadek and his designer Karl Kneidl choose a production aesthetic more closely in keeping with the Ensemble's reputation. It's the kind of scrupulously planned "poor theatre" in which Peer's fellow Norwegian villagers dress in thrift-shop dowdies, eastern acolytes may appear in ripped tights and trainers and a fez-wearing flunkey plays exotic tunes on an old, hand-held Casiotone toy synthesizer. But it gives the impression of using far fewer props than in fact it does, from various papier-mache animals that canter once across the stage to a fully functioning wurst stall in which Peer has his famous revelation about identity being like the layers of an onion.
Uwe Bohm is never less than personable as Peer, making him more of an Everyman than an anti-hero. Angela Winkler and Annete Renneberg are each dignified and long-suffering in their own ways as Peer's mother and his lover Solveig respectively. The Ensemble work together excellently both as human (or anthropoid) crowds and as objects such as a stormy sea or a human-pyramid Sphinx. Zadek's production does equal honour to Ibsen, the Berliner Ensemble and the audience, which enjoys not only one of the more digestible Peer Gynts but easily the most laudable item of theatre in this year's Edinburgh International Festival to date.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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