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Peer Gynt by Rough Magic (Review)

Peer Gynt can be a daunting play to put on. Running at five hours, it’s a show that tests your audience’s bladder control at least as much as their patience. Still, it’s one of those absolutely wonderful fantasy stories that demands retelling and reimagining, with a wonderfully raw quality to it as it is passed down and filtered through countless interpretations. Rough Magic have produced a rather wonderful version of the story as part of the Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival, playing at Belvedere College. It an impressive and engaging take on a classic story, working off a new version by writer Arthur Riordan.


The production design on the show is nothing short of incredible. The set might be one of the most impressive and comprehensive I think I’ve ever seen, and it’s absolutely stunning. Reimagining Peer’s journeys through the treatment area of some sort of institution is a wonderfully creative decision, and the set has been constructed in such a manner that Peer Gynt has all the tools he needs to fashion an incredible imaginary life’s journey without ever leaving the walls of his hospital. It’s stunning, not only because it’s so vast and breathtaking as the audience take their seats, but also because it doesn’t intrude on Peer’s mystical fantasies, allowing the audience to be swept away on trips to foreign soil or taken to sea or even to meet the devil at the crossroads.

With a runtime of about three hours (including an interval), you might be forgiven for assuming that the audience would feel a bit worn out or exhausted at the end of it, but it was actually quite invigorated. Riordan’s script is perfectly lyrical, with the words flowing from the actors like musical poetry. One almost gets the sense that the music would be just as obvious without the accompanying score from Tarab, playing in a hallow space at the centre of the stage. There are times when the story bursts into full-out musical, and there’s always atmospheric accompaniment, but the lines as spoken have a magical lyrical quality to them, delivered with almost perfect timing by most of the cast.

Angels and demons...

Of course, Rory Nolan deserves a lot of credit for taking the lead role. There’s a wonderful moment early on where Peer narrates of his epic (and entirely fictional) struggle with a great deer, and Nolan knocks it perfectly out of the park, remaining consistent throughout the show. The banter and wordplay are sharp and clever throughout, with various styles and approaches hinted at – at one point, it almost seems like the cast and crew are rapping. After all, one could make the case that it’s urban poetry.

I’ve always admired the story of Peer Gynt, if only because it hits on such fascinating core themes – the idea of personal identity, and the suggestion to that to do nothing is worse than to do evil. Rough Magicbring these ideas out almost perfectly, capturing all the wonderful core themes of the play, while retaining a charming sense of humour and a playful wit. The scale of the production is impressive, with all the technical departments firing on all cylinders.

All set...

I can’t imagine how difficult it was to take a story as epic as Peer Gynt and edit it down so thoroughly, removing what must be two hours of material. Still, this adaptation does it, while retaining the core of the tale. It’s brought to life with energy and enthusiasm by a talented cast and crew, and continues what has been a stunning few months for theatre in the capital.

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