When I sat down to watch Peer Gynt in Corpus Playrooms, only knowing it was an Ibsen play, I was expecting something fairly normal. Whatever “normal” is, it is not what I got. Ibsen tends to stick with clear characters, defined plotlines and a realistic, specified, grounding in space and time, but this was interpreted within the realm of the brilliantly absurd (Tom Chandler). I’m pretty sure there was someone called Peer Gynt (Josh Seal) who, after being outcast to the forest, encountered a plethora of strange people and creatures characterised by Temitope Idowu (Solveig/Anitra) and Charmaine Au-Yeung (Ase/Dovregubben), then died and had some kind of reckoning of self.
The show advertises itself as ‘half-way between a piece of theatre and jazz gig’, which figures, because although I’m not sure exactly what happened in the middle, I certainly enjoyed it.
We were met at first by a live band (Gabriel Margolis on keys, Liz Blackwell playing bass and Lucy Molnar on drums) and singing (Idowu and Au-Yeung)– always an excellent beginning. The jazz music (organised by MD William Want and AMD Gabriel Margolis) was used incredibly effectively throughout the whole performance, adding to all dimensions of the play, but primarily making it fun, and dicing with that division between the audience and the performance. In the second part, Monlar, on drums, encouraged the audience to take part in a collective soundscape, by rubbing their hands together and adding clicks and claps to create the sound of a crackling fire. The theatrical atmosphere was lively and inviting, and explored the use of sound as a storytelling device in itself.
The stage pallet was clean, with long warm-beige curtains hung down on either side, and a rectangle of dark space in place of the door. I remember remarking to my friend that the curtains were like a canvas on which the action would be painted, becoming less facetious and more accurate a description as the play began. Each opening character was dressed in a similar cloth, which tied them and the set into a cohesive and creative whole most effectively.
When the storytelling began, it was clear the very idea of telling a story was key to this production. Immediately they got the audience laughing as Peer stood up on a bench animatedly telling his mother (Au-Yeung) of the dangers he had faced before he revealed it had just been an invention. It was a funny and cozy beginning, sweetly opening on one of the key (and clear) relationships of the play. The energy of and between the actors on stage was fantastic throughout. Au-Yeung and Idowu’s comic characterisation and strange dancing was a joy to behold, and Seal’s understated believability as Peer fed through the whole piece well.
The lighting (Rory Clarke) added to the unreality of everything on stage, sometimes strange greens and pinks, or intense spotlights directly over Peer, or tree shapes projected onto the curtains behind, and fairy lights over the back door, made the production a display for the ears and eyes.
Overall, I can’t say how effectively the interpretation of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt was – I’ve never read it. But I can say that the meaning of everything on stage, while coming into fruition at the end as an exploration of self, would have benefited from being posited from the very beginning more explicitly. The audience wanted a reason to be invested in the self of Peer Gynt and his self-realisation (or lack thereof) and this would have been helped significantly if they were shown that the point was that self-realisation.
Entertaining and polished, this performance was so much fun to watch, but could have done with more clarity – even if that clarity was rooted in its absurdity.
Peter Gynt is on in the Corpus Playroom, at 7pm from the 8th-12th March. Tickets available here: https://www.adctheatre.com/whats-on/play/peer-gynt/?read=true