Peer Gynt: A giant ­extravaganza with trolls and a wedding cake

by Francesca Horsley / 07 March, 2017

Eli Kent.

A new production of Peer Gynt uses virtually none of the original text.

Eli Kent is sure Henrik Ibsen would not be impressed with his adaptation of Peer Gynt. It is not so much that the celebrated Kiwi playwright has rewritten the Norwegian’s 19th-century five-act masterpiece, messed around with the characters and thrown bits out. It is more that Kent has written himself into the action, sharing the ­limelight with the main character, and venting his personal issues. He has also co-opted Ibsen as a character.

“People won’t know where Ibsen begins and where my work ends, so I can claim some of his genius,” says Kent. “Ibsen sees this kid standing on his shoulders as a very dangerous thing. He tells Eli, ‘You rub like a cat rubbing against furniture.’”

Productions of the play are always high spectacle and this version, Peer Gynt [recycled], directed by Colin McColl for the Auckland Theatre Company, will be no exception. Kent promises a giant ­extravaganza with trolls, fake vomit, various explosions and a huge wedding cake. “It is a romp,” he says. “I have tried to stay true to that sense of calamity and riot, wildness and imagination.”

Sitting in the ATC boardroom, Kent has a quiet demeanour that belies his “wunderkind” status as one of New Zealand’s most exciting young playwrights, the recipient of numerous awards. Since bursting onto the stage at 19 with his 2008 play Rubber Turkey, Kent has continued to create works that gleefully disrupt established theatrical conventions. As well as writing plays, he has moved into the movies, making two short films, and has other material yet to be produced.

The scale of Peer Gynt was a challenge: it offered Kent a cinematic scope but he says that, at first, he felt he wasn’t “smart enough to write the play I wanted to write”.

“The key was to start having fun. It sounds silly, but I worried so much about it and then something happened – I just started laughing.”

Written in 1867, Ibsen’s Peer Gynt has never fallen out of favour and recent international productions have explored contemporary issues within its complex storyline. Kent says he believes one reason for the play’s enduring appeal is that it is about identity, ways of thinking about the self, “what the self is and how do you present yourself?”. These philosophical concepts have developed considerably since Ibsen’s time but nevertheless still find resonance: what is the self in the era of the internet and social media?

Photo/Getty Images

Kent’s version takes the audience on a journey that explores both the play and his response to it. Rather than restaging the original, he built a meta-narrative. “It’s not really enough for me to just modernise it, to use cell phones or talk about Trump; it needs more personal things to make it unique. I thought the only thing I can do is to make it speak for me and my problems, to use the play to help myself. But the struggle is universal.”

The essence of the original is there, but “it is jumbled and messed around with”, says Kent. The text is totally rewritten, save a few lines here and there that he could not let go.

This is not the first time Kent has written himself into a work. In his second play, The Intricate Art of Actually Caring, he played a character called Eli and his friend, Jack Shadbolt, a ­character called Jack. It was staged in Kent’s bedroom. The story was entirely fictional, but some audience members became angry when they discovered it was not true to life.

“We didn’t think much about our obligation to truth at the time, but I have been thinking about it recently. People are super-trusting of things they shouldn’t be trusting. If you put your real name on a character, people assume that the entire thing is true.

“This is one of the things I’m playing with [in Peer Gynt]. What is the value of truth in this context, because it’s all a story? There are limits, obviously. When you are making a piece of ­fictional theatre, it is absolutely a fine philosophy to have, but if you carry that over to journalism, you get post-truth, bullshit annihilism, which is what the alt-right is all about. They say they’re about facts but they are about ­contradictions, ­subjective truth.”

Kent says that Gynt is an Everyman, an anti-hero. “He is not a bad guy like Richard III, but he doesn’t represent the traditional hero’s journey. He has no morality or goal, he is drifting and somehow that is ­incredibly entertaining. It ­deliberately subverts the idea of direction and ­consequence most heroes’ journeys follow.”

Gynt is enticed by fantasies and ­spectacle and tragically ignores the small, true things that he encounters along the way. Eventually, he ends up with nothing because he holds onto worthless ­artefacts. “These things are ghosts of popular culture, things that stick in our mind such as cartoons we watched when we were kids that shape who we are and that aren’t really truthful or helpful. The idea of minds being shaped by flawed facts, by flawed beliefs – who are we really? It is about delusion, I guess.”

Peer Gynt [Recycled], Auckland Theatre Company as part of the Auckland Arts Festival, ASB Waterfront Theatre, March 7-18.

This article was first published in the March 11, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.  

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