Gruffdog Theatre’s Peer Gynt comes highly recommended, having created a buzz on its way to Edinburgh by winning Buxton Fringe’s Theatre Production award. It lives up to the hype, as director Pete Sayer delivers an inventive ensemble version of Henrik Ibsen’s play, fusing physical theatre and music with loving attention to detail.
The opening introduces both style and theme effectively. Ten identically-dressed actors arrive onstage in turn, playing with a musical motif that reverberates through the play. Each is reluctant to put on the hat that they have discovered, until the final actor has the hat and the responsibility of Peer Gynt thrust upon him.
The part of Peer rotates through the cast, with four different actors taking the lead during the performance. The transitions between each of the representations are significant – Peer can be happy to move on to a new phase, or it might be forced upon him. Joseph Stephenson as our opening Peer introduces a teller of tall tales, whose failure to grow up leads to his estrangement from the village though enchanting the spirited Solveig. The switch to the second Peer (Daisy Hayes) brings a sadder, chastened Peer, broken by the loss of his long-suffering but ever-loyal mother, played with great heart by Ell Potter.
This interpretation of the play gives us a sympathetic Peer, a dreamer with big ideas, worthy of the love of Solveig and his mother – rather than the selfish egotist running from responsibility that Ibsen satirised. This turns the relationship between Peer and Solveig into that rather tired trope of feckless man redeemed by the love of a good woman, and frankly Madeleine Walker’s Solveig is worth more than that. The final moment of the play hints at something darker, but the opportunity has gone.
However, the success of this production lies in the wonderful theatricality of its staging. The ensemble playing is superb – in moments such as Peer abandoning his mother on the roof, in the attention to detail when Peer and Solveig scoot between a crowd of villagers splicing two scenes, and in the breath-taking storm. The original theatre music by Edvard Grieg is instantly recognisable and – picked out simply by the cast on violin, guitar and voice – is immensely effective in setting the mood.
The puppetry behind the troll mountain king is powerful; the ingenuity of the puppeteers moving the arms is a joy. And it’s worth picking out Tom Curzon, who is a real mainstay of the production: the first man on stage, the body and voice of the Troll, the violinist, and the final Peer.
There may be quibbles over the representation of Peer Gynt as a lovable rogue, and a loss of clarity in the Egyptian scenes. But it’s the sheer joy in the ensemble playing that you will remember.