Thought impossible to stage, the original Peer Gynt is Henrik Ibsen's 1867 5-act masterwork of poetic indulgence, combining trolls, demons, storms, even a pack of apes. Thought to be a deliberate attempt at writing something that could not be presented for the stage, when Ibsen was asked to help edit it for a production nine years after writing, he wanted to cut entire acts.
Around 2005, director Dominic Hill thought that Peer Gynt might be adapted into a contemporary version. Returning to a previous collaborative partner in writer Colin Teevan, together with the lauded permanent company at Dundee Repertory and the National Theatre of Scotland, Peer Gynt has been reborn as a Scottish lout with his own football chant, no less.
This adaptation certainly works. From the very outset it’s very easy to relax and watch the interaction between the young Peer Gynt (Keith Fleming) who has returned to the family home without some promised food, berated by his coarse yet adorable mother (played sympathetically by Ann Louise Ross). Peer deflects her abuse by spinning a wild tale of riding a reindeer high in the sky above a loch, echoes of Ibsen’s original Norwegian folk tales and fjords.
Thus begins this adapted story of Peer Gynt at both ends of his life. The poetic verse has been replaced by Scottish vernacular and plenty of cursing but the poetry is still evident. The play flows effortlessly between scenes, alternating between life in Peer’s small home town and the madness within his own mind. Peer is his own worst enemy – it is at the beginning of the play that he meets Solveig (Ashley Smith) who is among the first to be left behind by Peer.
The second act brings us to nearer to the end of Peer’s life, played unreservedly by Gerry Mulgrew. A life of avoidance has taken its toll on Peer, with death approaching he’s forced to look back over his life in search of a moment where he was truly himself.
Hill excels himself here in the final scenes, and Mulgrew takes you through them with passion and conviction. Solveig returns and with some breathtaking singing from Smith as she welcomes both the old and new Peer back into her life is certainly a beautiful ending to this wonderful adaption.