Peer Gynt

'Peer Gynt' by Rough Magic Theatre Company at the Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival

'Peer Gynt' by Rough Magic Theatre Company at the Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival

In many ways Irish theatre owes a debt to Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. Its treatment of native myth and folklore was an inspiration to W.B. Yeats and other writers of the Irish Literary Revival. The Gate Theatre came into being with the Irish premiere of the play, helping to cement that theatre’s mission to bring classic European drama to the Irish stage. But perhaps its most important connection to Ireland is the way in which the play actively interrogates the construction and performance of self, a theme that, more than anything else, is the hobbyhorse of Irish theatre as a whole. It’s this concern that Arthur Riordan’s sharp and poignant adaptation of Ibsen’s dramatic poem brings to the fore, adding a genuine Irish lilt to an epic Norwegian fairytale.
Eponymous hero Peer Gynt (Rory Nolan) is introduced as a teller of tall tales, a bombastic young man with very little to show for himself besides his ability to inflate his own sense of self worth through the concoction of wildly absurd legends. In spite of his drawbacks as a drinker and womanizer, he’s a comfort to his doting mother (Karen Ardiff), whose adoration of Peer here has all the echoes of the classic Irish mammy. When the option to settle down with the pure and innocent Solveig (Sarah Greene) presents itself, Peer instead heads for the hills, spending decades groping for some semblance of self. What follows is a role-playing game of hide-and-seek, as Peer assumes and performs persona after persona, dodging the hard truth that he has never fully been himself.

Riordan and Parker have placed Gynt’s efforts to find a stable identity within the metatheatrical frame of a posh psychiatric institution, where the figure of Gynt is revealed as a new inmate adapting to life on the inside. Aided by his Light Self (Fergal McElherron) and Dark Self (Peter Daly), Gynt’s tale becomes the fevered machinations of sick man’s brain, with his performance a kind of survival strategy against the painful realities of his situation. The effect is interesting enough, potently playing up the power stories have over defining who we are and how we interact with the world around us. And while there are some affecting resonances (Peer’s Solveig is actually a duty nurse who indulges his flights of fancy), the conceit creates a kind of thematic echo chamber that at times can needlessly highlight what Ibsen’s story is already telling us. This is also true of staging. Designers John Comiskey and Alan Farquharson have created a sumptuous set that dominates the action, and whose bending, windowed walls suggest the spiraling chambers of a seashell. It’s a gorgeously realized space, but one that forces a majority of the action downstage, begging the question of how the massive O’Reilly Theatre could have been better utilized in telling a tale as epic as Peer’s.

Parker’s cast, however, make the most of both Ibsen’s fantastical world and powerful emotional set pieces. Rory Nolan is a solid Gynt, crafting the arc of Peer’s journey with both a blustery bravado and piercing sensitivity. While shying away from any kind of caricature, Nolan deftly assumes both the age and range of Gynt’s varied incarnations, stepping in and out of the roles of gruff shipping magnate or mystical prophet with ease. He’s supported by a committed cast. Doubling up as both Peer’s mother Aase and his one-time troll fling, Karen Ardiff is a delightful presence. Sarah Greene’s does her utmost as Solveig, an unfortunately underwritten role that belies Greene’s abilities as a performer. Peter Daly and Fergal McElherron flank Peer as his Light Self and Dark Self respectively, and attempt to fill two roles that, despite their names and the best efforts of the performers, do little distinguish themselves. However, McElherron’s slithery and sibilant Devil is especially memorable. The remaining ensemble of Will O’Connell, Hilary O’Shaughnessy and Arthur Riordan effectively fill out the population of odd and entertaining characters that make up both Peer’s reality and fantasy. The rest of the production’s performers are unseen, masked by the walls of the set. Five very talented (but ultimately invisible) musicians add an aural element to the action, adding an extra emotional thrust which, while powerful in its own sonic right, can unintentionally bury the scenes they’re meant to underscore.

While the production’s conceit may not offer as powerful a frame as may have been intended, this is still a moving and entertaining Peer Gynt, thanks in large part to Nolan’s performance and Riordan’s playful and pointed adaptation.

Jesse Weaver was recently awarded a PhD in Theatre Studies from UCC, and is a playwright.


  • Review
  • Theatre

Peer Gynt by Henrik Ibsen in a new version by Arthur Riordan

30 Sept - 16 Oct, 2011

Produced by Rough Magic Theatre Company
In O'Reilly Theatre

Directed by Lynne Parker

Set/Lighting Design by John Comiskey and Alan Farquharson

Costume Design by Joan O'Clery

Sound Design & Production by Carl Kennedy

Cast: Karen Ardiff, Peter Daly, Sarah Greene, Fergal McElherron, Rory Nolan, Will O’Connell, Hilary O’Shaughnessy, Arthur Riordan

Music by Tarab

Musicians: Kate Ellis, Robbie Harris, Emer Mayock, Nick Roth, Francesco Turrisi