Fizzing with fun, fantasy and philosophy – thatâ€™s Peter Gynt, the new reworking of Ibsenâ€™s notoriously difficult, monstrously long, epic verse play.
David Hare and the National Theatre have taken Peer Gynt and turned it into a modern Scottish morality play without a glottal stop, with laughs a-plenty, up-to-the-minute satire, and catchy music.
Itâ€™s still long, but rarely boring, with James McArdle holding the audience for over three hours with his engaging central performance. He is a swaggering Scottish soldier, a fantasist returning home to Dunoon from a field of battle suspiciously similar to â€œThe Guns of Navaroneâ€, a detail his long-suffering mother (Ann Louise Ross) is quick to point out. His idea is to be himself, or rather to be the most amazing version of himself that he can imagine, a boastful trait that does not endear him to the locals. Nor does his seduction of a friendâ€™s bride on the eve of her wedding, a dastardly deed that forces him to flee, thus setting off a chain of events and encounters fantastical and at times hallucinatory.
He meets a group of singing cowgirls – music by Paul Englishby to replace Grieg – and joins the pig-faced trolls as they enjoy a Bullingdon Club style dinner. He acquires vast wealth and his own golf course through arms dealing, and is swindled out of his millions by his fellow great and good. He sires a monstrous sex machine of a son, survives a shipwreck, and is captured into a Freudian hell of facing multiple versions of himself. And these are only some of his adventures.
All the time society is forensically mocked, from Trumpian ideals to political cant, from greed and exploitation to the trivia of social media. Our lives are all stories, says Peter, so why not make and live the best stories, just as he did in his media empire.
The director Jonathan Kent has produced a lavish production with Richard Hudson staging a stunning setting. A huge brooding cliff seems outlined by a manâ€™s face, and indeed we are dealing with the profile of a man. A long central staircase runs up to a high set doorway, a staircase to heaven and the doors of perception.
Itâ€™s a play bristling with thought-provoking ideas and comment. As an opening drama for this yearâ€™s Festival, itâ€™s a winner.
Festival Theatre, until 10th August.