Theatre review: Peer Gynt

Peer Gynt | Four Larks Theatre | until Saturday 11 December


On Wednesday night I was lucky enough to share with friends in the experience that is the Four Larks Theatre company. Even a visit to their website gives a sense of how this self-funded young company masters atmosphere. Entering their space is like being stolen by storybook Gypsies.

Four Larks describe themselves as ‘a collective’ and this collaborative ethos shines in their work. Their 6/7-piece orchestra is sublime and their actors’ ensemble a joy to watch. Four Larks make the kind of creative theatre I love. You can see from their costuming, set design and lighting design how much improvisation plays into the development of every aspect of the production. Their theatre-making seems to me to be created from the ‘inside out’ – shaped by living, breathing and playing the text. There is an organic sense of the whole that, in my experience, only comes with a visceral approach to play-making. But don’t mistake me, this is an intelligent, clever production.

In the introduction to my lovely old 1925 copy of Peer Gynt, translator R. Farquharson Sharp tells us that Henrik Ibsen wrote in a letter to writer/director Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, ‘[The play] was written in Southern Italy, in the Island of Ischia and at Sorrento. So far away from one’s future readers, one becomes reckless.’ In 1880, he answered the queries of his translators with, ‘to make the matter intelligible, I should have to write a whole book’.

Farquharson Sharp describes it as a ‘fantasy woven out of the folklore of its author’s country and embroidered by his wealth of thought and keen wit’. Not a ‘philosophical poem’ or satire, but ‘a fantasy’.

Ibsen was a controversial figure in his day. He was a supporter of the socialist movement and wrote in protest against oppression. He was vilified for his revolutionary portrayal of Nora, who finds the courage to leave her husband and children in his famous A Doll’s House, and forced to write an alternative ending (which he deplored) where she puts her children first.

In a letter to his publisher, Ibsen wrote of the response to Peer Gynt, ‘[T]hey have discovered much more satire in it than was intended by me. … But if the Norwegians of to-day recognise themselves, as it would appear they do, in the character of Peer Gynt, that is the good people’s own affair.’

PEER GYNT : My position makes it needful
For me to put on a mask
Of most serious behaviour;
I’m constrained by daily duties,
And the nature of the business
Relative to my great office,
To assume a weighty manner,
And at times may seem to others
Too prophetically abrupt;
But ’tis all on the surface—
I am Peer—that’s who I am.
Come now, I will drop the Prophet;
You shall know my very self!
[Sits down under a tree and draws ANITRA closer to him.]
Come, Anitra, let us dally
Underneath this waving palm!
You shall smile and I shall whisper
Nothings in your ear

Edvard Grieg collaborated with Ibsen to write the score for the original performance at the Christiania Theatre in 1876. For the Little Bakery in Northcote, 2010, the play has been abridged and adapted by Jesse Rasmussen with much fine musical interpretation.

The play is still quite long; however, I was engaged for the whole rich, sensory experience and enjoyed it immensely. I was not as moved as I thought I might have been by the ending, but a companion theatre-goer was brought to tears so I’m prepared to concede that ‘might have been me’. I did feel the spoken word was not as clearly articulated as the visual and musical poetry. Perhaps the cast could have left a little more space around the delivery and I sometimes struggled to catch the words clearly.

Four Larks have created a beautiful visual storytelling of Ibsen’s difficult work and it is worth getting along to their extended season for the aesthetics alone. As described by Alison Croggon: ‘this […] contemporary enactment of a story […] reaches back far beyond the 19th century. And the constantly inventive staging, often using re-purposed objects like feather dusters or bits of rope, reinforces this feeling: the ordinary is here made strange.’ And I agree that Tilly Perry as Solveig, singing in the window, was an absolute joy, visually and musically. Harpist and singer, Genevieve Fry, was wonderful. The King of the Trolls, brilliant fun – his actor, Craig Piaget, one of the scene-stealers of the show.

My sympathy for the protagonist, Gynt – swept away by the magic and heroism of folklore, taunted mercilessly by his pitiless mother and peers for his tall tales – faded quickly. From my 1925 Everyman version: ‘The action, which begins in the early years of the century and ends somewhere about our own day (1867), takes place partly in the Gudbrandsdal and on the surrounding mountain-tops, the coast of Morocco, the Sahara Dessert, in the Cairo Lunatic Asylum, at Sea, etc.’ An unlikeable character – liar, womaniser, slaver, capitalist, coward who would kill to save his own life (if, indeed, he ever left home) – is a difficult role, carried admirably by the Four Larks’ Ray Chong Nee.

I, for one, think Gynt should end up in that ladle, his soul moulded into a button.

The play has had other good reviews by more esteemed critics and if you’re quick, there’s a last chance to see the final shows of the extended season.

Clare Strahan

Clare Strahan is a two-time novelist with Allen & Unwin publishers, long-ago contributing editor to Overland, and teaches in the RMIT Professional Writing & Editing Associate Degree.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. I feel churlish to have made any criticism at all of a show with such heart – get along and support this precious, independent theatre co.

  2. Bravo!
    I am so impressed and very glad that the Four Larks company do what they do!
    They offer such a rich and wonderful experience and this is a truly great play.
    Like a child hearing a new favourite story, I wish for it again and again … until I know it back to front!

  3. What an amazing production. I wish i had read the original text or knew the original plot so that I could appreciate the avante garde version the Fourlarks put together but i enjoyed it nonetheless and admired their production enormously overall. Only tweeking would be slightly less words more slowly and clearly delivered.

  4. Aye – it’s a thing of beauty. When this company bring the spoken word into balance with everything else they’re doing: they’ll be truly divine.

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