First up: a confession. I left it until the last 5 minutes of the walk to the National Theatre to admit to my companion for the evening that the play we were going to see – Peter Gynt – was three and a half hours long with two intervals. She commented that she was beginning to “regret her life choices”. I was slightly apprehensive myself as we debated how permissible it might be for a reviewer to leave before the end of a show, writes Katie Kelly.

We never revisited this question, entertained as we were from the first five minutes of this adaptation of Peer Gynt by David Hare. James McArdle, as Peter, burst onto the scene via a fabulous magic staircase and dazzled throughout. A self-obsessed, rambunctious war veteran full of tall tales, he is described by his own mother in the first few minutes as a narcissistic fantasist with attention deficit disorder. Harsh words from your nearest and dearest but not unwarranted. After a few days in his small Scottish town he has alienated the whole community, abducted and abandoned a bride and fallen for the mysterious Sabine – a refugee with apparent depth and integrity, who, bafflingly, perceives something of worth in Peter underneath the tall tales and rank selfishness. 

From here things just get stranger and stranger. An encounter with a mountain troll king and his daughter traps Peter and forces him to abandon his better self and Sabine to attempt an odyssey of sorts; wandering through dreamlike landscapes desperate to create a meaningful story and existence. The only way is down, it seems, though at the centre of the journey the vacuous antihero makes a brief visit home to hold his dying mother, with extraordinary poignancy. 

After this, Peter morphs into a golf course owning, cheating, media magnate and arms dealer and then, finally, a broken and bitter old man. Eventually, his journey of self-invention leads him back home to face the reckoning of the brilliant Oliver Ford Davies, who declares that time is up, and Peter must die and be ‘recycled’ as someone who has led the mediocre life, he most dreaded. At the beginning of the play Peter declares that “If I can’t be exceptional, then I don’t want to be” and at the end he is desperate for significance, even preferring to be sent to hell than to be simply one of the ordinary masses. 

A strong satirical thread runs through the play including a critique of the endless banal self-invention and promotion of our social media age. The critique is not nuanced: the fantastical Trolls, whose motto is “To thine own self be true – and damn the rest of the world”, are imagined as an Oxbridge dining society. One-character sports a Boris Johnson wig.  Elsewhere, someone describes the contribution of the Russians to global politics as a result of their “happy go lucky approach to the sanctity of human life”. Not subtle perhaps but laugh out loud funny. 

There were a lot of empty seats in the vast Olivier auditorium and the play has been somewhat criticised, but I left entertained, amused, provoked and very happy to recommend the experience. 3.5 hours. No regrets.

Peter Gynt is on at the National Theatre, South Bank, SE1 until 8th October. Times Mon – Sat 7pm; Wed & Sat matinees 1pm. Admission: £15 – £68. Phone: 0207 452 3000

www.nationaltheatre.org

Photos: Manuel Harlan