Manchester Royal Exchange
Opened 16 February, 1999

Every so often a director will take it into his or her head to stage the unstageable, and high on the list of unstageable favourites is Ibsen's Peer Gynt written to be read rather than acted, and with an uncut playing time of some six hours. Peer's search for his endlessly receding selfhood strikes a deep chord in our collective unconscious, but actual, physical presentations can all too easily stagger under the weight of gimmickry or flounder in a metaphysical fog.

Not so Braham Murray's production, in which Peer even as, like the proverbial Irish goat, he "goes a bit of the road with everyone" is rooted in a northern solidity. He is more a role-player than an outright fantasist, and his core character always shows through; even after assuming the guise of an Eastern prophet and adopting a Bhagwan-like "Binglish" lilt to fool the gullible, his lecherous asides as he pursues (and is fleeced by) a buxom sanyasin are delivered in pure Mancunian.

This is at least as much due to David Threlfall's performance as Murray's directorial vision. Threlfall, in his natural shaven-headed state, has the physical and vocal versatility to play both the youthful baggies-and-trainers Peer and the aged man realising with horror that there is no centre to the onion of his personality, as well as all points in between. It is also a testimony to Michael Meyer's translation (his 1962 version, as pared down for a 1970 production, and running at less than three hours) that, with so few adjustments, it continues to ring naturally even amid such unnatural situations as Peer's negotiations with the troll king.

In other respects, however, Murray's production is very definitely contemporary: the dance early in the action takes place to a techno-and-banjo accompaniment worryingly close to the loathsome "Cottoneye Joe", and Peer later finds the Philosophers' Club peopled by figures ranging from Marx and Hitler to Chris Evans and Tony Blair (interestingly, between the printing of the programme and the opening night, Bill Gates was replaced in this scene by the more recognisable Michael Jackson). Josette Bushell-Mingo provides strong support as, among others, the patient Solveig and the troll princess, but is rather underused; sadly, the same could be said of Espen Skjønberg who, although making substantial appearances as the trollish Old Man of the Mountains and the Button Moulder dispatched to collect Peer's soul for recycling, contributes primarily a sense of authentic Norwegianness. Nevertheless, this is a production which, whilst steadfastly refusing to impose a directorial or presentational logic on the play (what on earth, for instance, are those human birds doing on their Kirby wires?), makes eminent sense on a fundamental level. Not so unstageable after all.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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