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Peter Gynt


National Theatre, London
Four stars

“I pity anyone without their own adjective” declaims the golf-club owning, gun-running, newspaper owning uber-capitalist and ego-stroking narcissist David Hare’s version of Ibsen’s self-aggrandising runaway boy becomes in Jonathan Kent’s production. A collaboration between the National Theatre of Great Britain and Edinburgh International Festival, where it arrives next month, Hare and Kent’s reimagining is a mind-expanding dream of a show, in which the doors and stairways of Richard Hudson’s set appear from thin air like a surrealist painting. James McArdle’s Peter, meanwhile, is an initially wide-eyed patter merchant returning to Dunoon from the war with stories as wide as the picture house screens from which he stole them.

Over the next three and a half hours, Peter moves mountains in his gradual getting of wisdom. At first he’s an unreconstructed roaring boy with ideas above his station, only to end the play a haunted bar-room philosopher in search of his long-lost mojo.   

Along the way, Peter’s life is a dream of dancing cowgirls, Bullingdon boy Trolls and a harem of Me Generation hippy chicks in search of a guru. While this is all brought to audacious life by a rollicking cast of twenty-five, there is lost love too, in the form of Anya Chalotra’s Sabine, who devotes her life to dispensing knowledge while Peter chases increasingly soul-sapping experience.

With McArdle onstage pretty much constantly, the young Peter has the infectious charm of a pantomime lead making all the audience his pals, while his older self is a bleak hangover from some spit-and-sawdust grimoire transplanted into a magical realist fantasia. After the initial fun, Hare’s targets – from super-rich con merchants to the fear of love, taking in fake news and personal myth-making en route - become increasingly explicit. One set-piece sees Peter forced to confront his multitude of divided selves in spectacular fashion.

With fine support from an ensemble that includes Ann Louise Ross as Peter’s much put-upon mother Agatha, lilting folksy airs by composer Paul Englishby and epic video projections  by Dick Straker, Hare’s Peter Gynt shows how much fame costs, and is as authentic a homecoming as any serial fabulist deserves.

Peter Gynt runs at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, August 1-10

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