On one level, it is easy to see that Baltasar Kormákur’s National Theatre of Iceland production is principally a devised work. A mental-hospital scene, a cabal of blood-smeared plutocrats throwing handfuls of money into the air, a bunch of sunglassed thugs in black. These are ploys redolent of all too many productions that have no firm idea what they want to say but are determined to say it graphically. The first main difference is that in this case the company does have something to say: it has Ibsen’s fantastical, notoriously unstageable five-hour verse play, in which protagonist Peer is at every moment torn between trying to be an individual and trying to be a human being. The second difference is that it works.
Gretar Reynisson’s white tiled set serves at various points as a sauna in which prosperous Peer and various captains of international finance conspire, a fish-gutting factory in which his mother works, the old people’s home in which she dies and the morgue in which Peer finds himself at the beginning of the evening. Yes, the beginning: Kormákur and company astutely use the final phase of Ibsen’s play – in which Peer, at the end of his life, meets a supernatural Button-Moulder who wants to melt down and recycle his soul – as a framing device to enable him to look back on his life. This provides a helpful context for what is otherwise a cosmically bizarre picaresque. Only about one-third of the text is used, yet all the main elements and much of the detail survive, albeit in an English adaptation that veers far too often towards doggerel.
It is also quite strange for a London viewer to be able to speak with familiarity about so many Icelandic actors. Four of the cast of eight, including Björn Hlynur Haraldsson as Peer, Ingvar E. Sigurdsson as the Button Moulder and Ólafur Darri Ólafsson as the mafioso-like Troll King, are recognisable from the Vesturport company’s recent visits and/or the co-production of Metamorphosis last year at Hammersmith. Of the remainder, Brynhildur Gudjónsdóttir as Peer’s loving wife Solveig is luminous in her performance. The production really shouldn’t succeed, but somehow it all goes horribly right. Tel 020 7638 8891