By now you’ve probably heard that the Guthrie Theater’s latest attempt to peel the onion of “Peer Gynt” is something to be both admired and endured — a protean effort, an ambitious undertaking, with great moments amid misfires and inconsistencies.
To quote Yogi Berra, it’s like déjà vu all over again.
Back in 1983, the same sort of reaction — admiring, but tepid and qualified — greeted then-artistic director Liviu Ciulei‘s sprawling, five-hour version of Henrik Ibsen’s Odyssean fantasy. The production came amid an economic downturn for the theater, with plummeting attendance and a major year-end deficit.
“Peer Gynt,” which closed the 1982-83 season, didn’t help the Guthrie’s bottom line. The theater expended lavishly on a 27-member cast, a 17-week rehearsal period, some 130 costumes and huge special effects — such as a stage that rose up like the San Andreas Fault to allow trolls to emerge from some smoke-belching anteroom in hell. The overall set was so huge, in fact, that its metal superstructure had to be built on stage while another play was still in production; audiences at “Entertaining Mr. Sloan” were expected to ignore the scenic intrusion of the show under construction.
When Ciulei’s “Peer Gynt” opened, seeing the complete performance required either two nights or a marathon matinee-evening sequence with a dinner break. The Guthrie benefited by dove-tailing with a big ethnic festival under way in the Twin Cities called “Scandinavia Today.” A disheartened Ciulei dryly remarked during one of the well-attended, festival-connected symposiums at the theater that the Guthrie might get bigger audiences if it substituted symposiums for theater performances.
Trimmed down … to three hours
The current “Peer Gynt” at the new riverbank Guthrie clocked in last Friday with a three-hour opening-night performance. Unlike Ciulei’s version, which used two actors to play young and old Peer in a saga that covers 50 years, the current version is a tour de force for actor Mark Rylance, who also worked closely on the adaptation with Minnesota poet Robert Bly and director Tim Carroll. In pre-performance interviews, Rylance suggested that tinkering with the script might continue until the production closes on March 2.
The current “Peer” might be called a little more modest — a “mere” 19 cast members and a simple-seeming unit set that still elicits wows when the floorboards on a slatted wooden stage begin to undulate like waves on an ocean or drifting sands on a desert. Both locales are required, incidentally, for a panoramic play that, in its uncut form, embraced four continents in 38 scenes.
So why, given the challenges and expectations, would the Guthrie take another run at “Peer Gynt”?
“It’s like scaling Mount Everest, it’s so huge,” said Guthrie dramaturge Michael Lupu, who worked with Ciulei on the 1983 production and remains on the theater’s staff.
“Like Everest, you can scale ‘Peer Gynt,’ but you can’t cover it all,” Lupu said. “That’s why it’s imperative to come back and do it again — and, eventually, once again.”
There’s a precedent for that — and even more of a precedent for messing with the script. Last March, for example, the Minnesota Orchestra boiled the prodigal-son epic into a two-hour concert that used story-theater techniques and a small cast of actors, dancers and singers, plus 100 voices from the St. Olaf College Choir, to frame the orchestra’s performance of all of Edvard Grieg‘s so-called “incidental” music. The concert revealed that Grieg wrote not only orchestra music, but also arias, vocal trios and full choruses for the play.
And as another historical aside, in 1982, a little troupe in St. Peter, Minn., the Cherry Creek Theatre, beat Cuilei’s Guthrie to the punch by staging a two-hour narrative version of “Peer Gynt” with two actors playing all the roles, including a shared performance as Peer.
Theaters can’t seem to resist Peer
When he wrote “Peer Gynt” in 1867, Ibsen wanted the play to be read, but never thought it would be staged. That partly explains his use of verse — Bly’s adaptation alternates between rhymed poetry and prose — and for the sprawling quality of the play, with its folk-tale elements, ribald humor, heavy symbolism, and satiric references to some subjects that are timeless and to others long forgotten.
The grand-sized poetic dimension of Peer has exerted tremendous appeal to theater artists, while the play’s social criticism, with its biting examination of a bourgeois anti-hero, has been seen as an anticipation of the capitalist excesses of the modern age. Add surreal elements like a character that melts people into buttons and a crippled view of women as either saintly or carnal, and you’ve got a big, gnarly play.
“Peer Gynt” may not rank with other character-name plays like “Hamlet” and “Lear” in public familiarity, but it has a distinguished production history dating to the premiere performance in 1876 (nearly a decade after it was written) that first featured Grieg’s huge incidental music. An 1895 production in Paris was designed by Bonnard, Vuillard and Toulouse-Lautrec, and the cast included playwright Alfred Jarry, who would write “Ubu Roi” the following year.
Reviewing the Paris production was George Bernard Shaw, who described the self-serving Peer as “the pushing, competitive, success-craving man” who unfortunately represents “the hero of the modern world.”
The first Anglo-American production, in 1907, was a gigantic touring version starring Richard Mansfield that had a cast of 51 principals and 192 extras and traveled across the country in 11 railway cars. “Peer” was the last role for Mansfield, who died of cancer that year.
More significant, one of the first “modern” productions was directed by Tyrone Guthrie at London’s Old Vic in 1944, with a cast that included Ralph Richardson as Peer and Lawrence Olivier as the Button Molder, the curious figure who tells Peer that he will be melted down with the other “damaged goods” of humanity. Ingmar Bergman staged a 1957 Swedish version with Max von Sydow in the title role and a German production by Peter Stein in 1971 transformed the play into a political allegory. Ciulei’s production was described by many as “Brechtian.”
Over the years, “Peer Gynt” has been the subject of intense analysis. The play has been called a monumental bridge between the romantic Byronesque heroes and the existential sufferers of the modern age. It’s been called the first surrealistic play. It’s been called the first play with characters who are influenced by subconscious and psychological motivations.
It seems obvious that a character like Peer Gynt would interest Robert Bly, a Minnesotan of Norwegian stock whose 1990 best-seller, “Iron John: A Book About Men,” is credited with launching the “Mythopoetic Men’s Movement,” with its focus on male gender identity. Rylance said he first met Bly nearly a decade ago when he attended a workshop Bly was leading with a men’s group. (To see a video explaining the collaboration, go here.)
Rylance said he discovered that Bly had been translating scenes from Peer Gynt from the original Norwegian to English — and from there, the idea of staging a new adaptation of the play was launched.
So the production now being seen at the Guthrie is the product of years of effort. It takes a lot of courage — and a bit of vanity — to go after a new interpretation of Peer. I suspect Rylance will be praised for his stamina, bravura and inventiveness and faulted for other things — such as a performance that never strays far from a bumbling, youthful Peer who is never hardened by the sordid adventures of his dissolute life.
In the end, this Peer seems condemned to limbo not by personal action, but by personal inaction — and by being kind of clueless. Near the end of the play, Rylance gives a lovely performance of Peer’s onion-peeling scene, where he muses that the purpose of existence is nature’s joke, like trying to find the core of an onion and finding only layers. By then, however, it’s hard to believe that Rylance’s Peer could be capable of such introspection.
Even so, there is a worthy sentiment to the current “Peer Gynt” that echoes what Time magazine’s critic, Ted Kalem, said of the version presented 25 years ago: “The audacity of this Guthrie offering brings honor to the U.S. theater.”
David Hawley, a former reporter for the Pioneer Press, writes about theater and other topics for MinnPost. He can be reached at dhawley [at] minnpost [dot] com.
Editor’s request: Writer David Hawley saw the Guthrie Theater’s first production of “Peer Gynt” 25 years ago. And he saw the 21st century version the other night. What do you think of the latest staging of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s tome? Please comment below.