Preview: Peer Gynt

Tom Chandler 8 March 2022
Image Credit: Emily Shen

Over the Christmas vacation, I was working on adapting Henrik Ibsen’s play of truly epic proportions into a performable script for just 3 actors, down from 45. I had the formidable task of making a play which usually takes 3 to 4 hours to perform in full fit into a Corpus Mainshow slot. It has been an incredibly fun process, and I’ve truly fallen in love with the characters of the play – particularly Peer and his mother Åse – and this week I get to see them brought to life!

So, me and Will, the show’s musical director, have taken this opportunity to reflect on the show so far, and the nature of our roles.

In your own words, what is your role within Peer Gynt? 

Will: My job is to take pre-existing music, usually written for the original production by Edvard Grieg, and push it through the jazz machine until it turns into this completely new gig theatre idiom we have created! I overlook all the musical aspects of the production, from the singing to the dance, as well as transcribing the original incidental music.

Tom: In addition to the practical aspects of editing the script, I have also had a remarkable amount of creative freedom. Working from a translation done by William and Charles Archer in the 19th Century, I have modernised all the language, improved aspects of translation, and left some of the original Norwegian in – notably the word ‘nok’, a somewhat untranslatable word which means roughly ‘ish’ or ‘enough’. I’ve also had to think carefully about the focus of our particular production – what themes do we want to shine through? What can be cast aside as less important? This has also included changing aspects of Peer’s character to make him more sympathetic to a modern audience.

What has it been like balancing adaptation with originality?

T: So, as mentioned above, I have made some significant changes to the script, but I think ultimately the key to this has been staying true to the core themes and messages of the play, such as truth, love, and storytelling. It was important to everyone that the play remained recognisable as Ibsen’s original, but also that we brought our own thoughts and opinions to it.

W: Any adaptation is already an original reinterpretation of a classic text — with my use of jazz music, the pastoral and communal themes of the play have really come out, especially with the band’s extensive use of improvisation. The play is about authenticity, and there is no genre more authentic than jazz, so the originality of the production really comes from how we have interpreted the original production, and how that has come into our adaptation.

What’s been your favourite moment so far? 

W: The first time we did our standing read through, I left the rehearsal with a massive smile on my face — everything we had worked towards and every big risk we had taken had worked out, and it was so joyous to see these six artists working in a room all together.

T: Personally, it has been working on some merchandise for the show, and finally having it in my hands. I worked with publicity designer Emily Shen to produce some enamel pins to sell, based on the figures of the trolls seen on the poster. Having been mostly involved in the script, rather than any practical things, this was the first time an aspect of the production came to life for me (a common peril of being a writer is dealing constantly in the abstract), but I have no doubt that opening night will be a wonderful experience.

What’s been the biggest challenge so far?

W: The biggest challenge so far has been knowing what to keep and what to ditch — Grieg has given us so much music, some of it better than other pieces, and it was a real struggle to work out a) what to keep, and b) what to replace it with! This has led to some songwriting sessions with the actors, and I’m happy to say that we have multiple original pieces of music in the show!

T: I have to echo Will on this one – there are large swathes of the script where not much really happens, and whilst Ibsen’s language is beautiful, the (copyright free) translation didn’t always preserve that, and we wanted to keep a sense of energy throughout the show. So it was a really difficult balancing act of deciding what to keep or toss. Perhaps the most difficult issue was the character of Anitra, who is not depicted particularly well in the original piece, so we were keen to give her some agency back, completely restructuring her episode of the play. I can’t wait to see this new, more powerful Anitra brought to life!

Why should people come to see the show?

W: People should come for a great night out — you will be tapping your toes, laughing, crying, leaving the theatre a completely different person you came in as, and hopefully it will inspire you to unleash your creativity into the world!

T: I really think this show is groundbreaking in its goals – each member of the team, particularly the director, Tom Shortland, has brought an intense and passionate creativity that has been wonderful to bounce off of as a writer. It’s certainly ambitious to do so much reinvention of both a classic text and well-known music, but I think it’s going to land beautifully, and I can’t wait to see it.

What do you hope people will take away from it?

W: People should know that everything is possible, no matter your experience or ‘ability’ — in terms of theatre and music, it’s all about being true to yourself and creating a genuine form of expression, and, if you succeed, people will be able to recognise that. This is something I have strived to do while musical directing this piece!

T: I think there’s a lot we can learn from Peer – the importance of sticking to your guns and being true to yourself, and tackling problems head on, living life with no regrets. I think that’s a lesson we can all carry with us, especially at Cambridge where life can get so hectic that you lose track of yourself. Overall, I hope the show will be a wonderful, joyous evening for everyone, and I can’t wait to see it.

The pins, pictured, are available to buy from the Corpus Playroom box office for £5 each. All profits from the pins will be donated to help those affected by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

‘Peer Gynt’ is on at 7pm in the Corpus Playroom from the 8th-12th March. Tickets can be purchased here: