In the play Educating Rita, when asked to write an essay providing suggestions of how to stage Peer Gynt effectively, Rita's one-line reply was simply, 'Do it on the radio!' It remains an astute piece of dramatic criticism and is a recommendation that Ibsen, I feel, would heartily endorse, since he wrote it originally as a verse poem and never intended that it be put on stage anyway.
And Conall Morrison, the young Irish director who started out directing this new National Theatre production, might feel much the same way now, having noisily exited the production two weeks before it opened after apparently berating his cast's efforts in full view of a paying preview audience. (He's since retreated home to Ireland, citing ill health).
Meanwhile, the National's artistic director, Trevor Nunn, has stepped into the breach, as he had to do, too, with the last Olivier opening, Romeo and Juliet: to have had to do so once may have been a misfortune, but to now have had to do so a second time is starting to look like carelessness. The fact that two consecutive major productions have run aground in this way does begin to beg questions about the lack of experience in those originally entrusted with staging them.
Peer Gynt has therefore arrived with a bit of baggage, but not as much as the stage of the Olivier Theatre itself that is appropriately cluttered with suitcases in Francis O'Connor's design. These turn into staircases and walkways, and is presumably a metaphor for the baggage that Peer himself has to carry in the lifelong journey towards self-realisation that he travels in this epic work.
The production has thankfully shed about a half an hour of the three hours 50 minutes running time cited in the programme, and while it's impossible to know where Nunn's contribution starts and Morrison's stops, that is at least a tribute to the seamlessness of the whole that has now been created.
Working with a new and colloquially Irish version of the play by Frank McGuinness, the sprawling narrative has been tightly if occasionally inconsistently reined in. With the title role assigned to three actors, its odd that two are black and one white, but even more so that only the latter is Irish accented, when a prevailing Irishness obtains throughout elsewhere.
But it's a minor gripe to a rendition of the play that is often enthralling and always interesting. And the trio of Peer's, if not each peerless, complement each other intriguingly: the young Chiwetel Ejiofor makes a particularly vivid contrast to the older Joseph Marcell, with the middle Peer of Patrick O'Kane providing the Irishness that the other two lack.