The Young Chekhov star shines in a whimsical modern adaptation as confused as its protagonist – ★★★★

David Hare is a master of the slow-burner. His last production for the National, I’m Not Running, was a dry, stagnating political drama which pales in comparison to his modern take on Henrik Ibsen’s egotist.

Photo: Manuel Harlan.

The mammoth 3 hours and 20 minutes long production, with two intervals, is ample time for Hare to flesh out the self-centred protagonist. Launching into profound, absurd and on-the-nose dialogue, the piece, like Gynt himself, makes it hard to find its real sincerity. The button moulder’s running commentary and fantasies, delivered with a child-like wonder by Angels in America star James McArdle, does well to ground the piece, sometimes with a direct description of what’s unfolding in front of him, such as the severing of a person’s finger in a forest.

The majority of the time we’re dictated to, but it’s Gynt’s monologues to himself which are perhaps the most impactful. A Scottish character delivering a metaphor involving an onion symbolising the layers of his character is imaginative, but far less so if you’ve seen Shrek enough times.

Yet it’s desperate attempt to secure itself as a modern adaptation is the main source of comedy in the epic. Similar to Gynt’s poor efforts to impress friends with his fantasies, Hare’s jokes about Poldark, blue passports and Nando’s Black Cards are forced references thrown in to appear relatable – its clumsiness making it funny almost by accident.

Also similar to Peter, the set by Richard Hudson (The Lion King) has a tangent or two. A large, sloping greenery with several entrances, the ensemble – thanks to direction from Jonathan Kent and choreography from Killing Eve‘s Polly Bennett – make light work of the plot’s sweeping settings, from Africa to Egypt to the United States. Tamsin Carroll (Everybody’s Talking About Jamie) makes a strong impression in her roles as the Woman in Green and the singer, leading the play’s few but catchy musical numbers in an impressive, commanding fashion.

Peter Gynt certainly lives up to its apparent description as a story of procrastination – no doubt aided by Hare’s slow-moving plot progression. As such, the 140-minute wait for a pay-off might feel like too long a wait for some, especially when a lot of the play’s creativity and philosophy is borrowed – or rather, recycled – from others.

None is more striking than the final act, where an older Gynt is met by prophetical creatures with tree branches for heads. It’s as Guillermo del Toro had been asked to make an adaptation of A Christmas Carol. Not quite satire but rather a collection of references and similarities, they that leave little to no room for originality.

As the somber conclusion to Act One shows, it’s when the play’s stripped bare, with McArdle centre stage, that a creative flair starts to show. Yet as Gynt tries to find itself over a couple of acts, these moments are few and far between – to thine one self, a mesmerising occasion, but to others, a too rare treasure hidden in such a long epic.

Peter Gynt is now playing at the Olivier Theatre until 8 October.

Disclaimer: I was invited to watch Peter Gynt for free in exchange for a review of the performance. I did not receive payment for this review and all opinions stated are honest and my own.