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Theater Review: Peer Gynt by the National Theatre of Iceland at the Barbican

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Peer Gynt is Ibsen, but not the Ibsen you'd you'd normally think of. As written it was a sprawling tumble of verse, designed to be read, not performed, and in performance taking some six hours to complete.

The first piece of good news is that the National Theatre of Iceland's performance of this epic has been cut and reshaped, to last two hours and 40 minutes, including interval. So your seat bones will survive the experience.

The second piece of good news is that there are some spectacularly good elements in this Peer. This is a production that loves the surreal, embraces the surreal, and produces some ruly memorable scenes – the bathhouse scene in which Peer induces the plutocrats and politicians of Europe to start the First World War is particularly memorable. The "trolls" armed with video cameras and a threatening electric sander are also noteworthy.

This is also a production that observes the details of everyday life in loving detail. The scene in which Peer's long-suffering mother (Olafia Hronn Jonsdottir) is taken in by his boastful story of "the Buckride" is set in a modern-day fish processing factory, and the interplay among the workers is beautifully observed. And the fish are definitely fresh – you can smell them.

But, but … for all its merits, Baltasar Kormakur's adaptation of the classic has a couple of serious problems. One is that Solveig (Brynhilder Guojonsdottir), the woman who sacrifices all for her love, or perhaps lust, for Peer, is given no real individuality or character. She's the woman who foolishly stands by her man no matter what, and we can only guess at her reasons for this.

The second is the nature of Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson's Peer. For physicality, for eye-catching charisma, for sheer charm, he's seductive. But there's nothing in the character we follow through three ages – the young rake, the cynical millionaire and the fading seeker of immortality — that produces sympathy. He's the classic mother's boy who can't or won't grow up, the ageing roue who can't see his ridiculousness in other's eyes, the bounder who'll take your money and attention, then skip away without a look back.

So all of the beautifully crafted staging (the rapid scene changes are slickly handled through the setting within the walls of a dingy psychiatric hospital whose "wards" are divided by ceiling height curtains), the closely observed movements by which the Button Moulder (Ingvar E. Siguroson) "unsticks" Peer's limbs, dissolved into mere stage craft, since, if the "Gynticide" produces no sadness, why should we have spent two hours-plus watching it unfold?


The production continues at the Barbican, as part of the Bite 07 season, until March 10. Tickets are currently listed as sold out, so returns might be your only hope.

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.