BATS Theatre, The Random Stage, 1 Kent Tce, Wellington

17/11/2020 - 21/11/2020

Production Details

Fantastical fable Peer Gynt showcases joy and talent of graduating actors 

The third-year students of Whitireia Community Polytechnic’s acting course are exceptionally excited for their upcoming production. Peer Gynt (BATS Theatre, 17-21 November) marks the group’s first – and only – publicly performed show for 2020.  But with the agility, humour and creativity they’ve shown all year, this cast is bringing everything to the stage and giving 2020 the sendoff it deserves! 

The cohort has had to adapt to a huge volley of COVID curveballs this year, with training moved online, project dates shuffled, and live performances reimagined into alternative formats, such as recorded works, exhibitions and digital media.

“It’s been a weird WEIRD year,” says director Tess Jamieson-Karaha. “After the strange demands of lockdown, getting to bring a fantastical fable like Peer Gynt to life – real life – has been extra-special. And as this company of actors prepares to graduate, I can only say how proud I am of their talent, resilience, adaptability, and pure joy; qualities you’ll see in spades at Peer Gynt!” 

Taken from Henrik Ibsen’s evocative five-act dramatic interpretation of the classic Norwegian Per Gynt folk tales, David Rudkin’s masterful fast-paced translation of Ibsen’s Danish play romps through our hero’s exciting, intrepid and downright idiotic exploits, and amplifies the joyful, magical spirit that makes this wonderfully unruly fable so popular.

And Peer Gynt has proved to be a perfect fit for these young actors, as they complete their training at Whitireia and prepare to take the leap into performance industries here in Aotearoa and all over the world. “The cast dived head-first into the play and I’m so proud of the playful, dynamic, moving world they’ve created. I couldn’t imagine a better way to end their final year of studies: A thrilling firecracker of a fairy-tale that looks to the future and leaves 2020 in the dust.”

BATS Theatre, The Random Stage, 1 Kent Terrace, Te Aro, Wellington
17 – 21 November 2020
Full Price $20
Group 6+ $18
Concession Price $15

Emma Barrett  |  Ingrid’s Father/ She in the Green/ Hag  |  Ballon/ Captain/ Young Lad
Nanuk Black  |  Ingrid/Voice/ Boyg  |  Skinny One
Olivia Chelmis  |  Solveig/ Troll Queen  |  Cotton/ Seaman/ Young Lad
Felix Crossley-Pritchard  |  Lad/ Troll King  |  Trumpeterstraale/ Boatsman/ Old Man
Felix Faure  |  Mads Moen’s Father/ Urchin  |  Eberkopf/ Hussein/ Button Moulder
Jeremy Hunt  |  Mads Moen  |  Bergriffenfeldt/ Passenger/ Man in Mourning
Devon Johnston  |  Peer Gynt  |  Cook
Mycah Keall  |  Aslak/Hag  |  Anitra/ Passenger/ Man in Grey
Georgia Kellett  |  Aase/ Troll Wench  |  Fellah/ Helmsman/ Young Lad
Zoe Stokes  |  Lad/Hag/Kari  |  Peer Gynt

Lighting Design:  Bekky Boyce
Technical Operator:  Bekky Boyce
Costume:  Devon Johnston
Stage-Hand:  Zofia Max
Set:  Georgia Kellet 
With built elements designed, constructed and kindly loaned by John Kellet  

Theatre ,

2hrs 15mins with interval

Captures the essence of a timeless tale

Review by John Smythe 18th Nov 2020

Peer Gynt the dramatic poem may be seen as the Nordic Odyssey; Peer Gynt the person as a wannabe Odysseus. While Homer’s epic charts the heroic exploits of Ithaca’s mythical King, Ibsen’s classic tells of a teenager leaving home to find himself in the wider world: the rite-of-passage for every generation. Except Peer Gynt is an antihero; a self-absorbed, self-entitled, narcissistic fantasist.

In both legends the male adventurers take decades to find themselves and their ways home. Meanwhile Penelope, wife of Odysseus, and Solveig, the runaway would-be wife of Peer, wait patiently in faithful fidelity for their men to return. In ‘real world’ terms, both stories could be labelled male fantasies although it could be argued that the women symbolise virtues that the inherently flawed men must labour to acquire.  

The folk-tales that drive Peer’s quest for fame and fortune – “a king, I’ll be!” – were told to him by his mother, Aase, the debt-ridden widow of a spendthrift drunkard Peer barely knew. Fiercely protective of her son, Aase despairs at his predilection for casting himself in heroic tales of derring-do, a behaviour that makes him the butt of peer-group ridicule in a society he sees as mediocre. While his childlike fantasising may seem endearing, Peer’s adolescent, testosterone-driven attraction to – and abuse of – women is not. That’s what gets him into trouble and sends him into exile; off on a journey that merges fantasy with reality.

With Peer Gynt, Ibsen arguably plays with ‘Magic Realism’ 60-odd years before its credited founders penned the genre’s seminal works. He explicitly dramatises ‘Psychological Realism’ before moving on to the more naturalistic plays he’s better known for, which embed psychological truth implicitly in the subtext. As for the quest for ‘Self’, which becomes Peer’s primary concern, Ibsen articulates it 40-odd years before Freud proposed the ego, super ego and id.*

Working with a trimmed-down translation by English playwright David Rudkin, Tess Jamieson-Karaha directs the graduating actors of the Whitireia Stage & Screen degree course in a crisply characterised and impressively paced production. The set, designed by John Kellet and Georgia Kellet, and lit by Becky Boyce, features a gridded wall with slotted steps that readily allows the action to be elevated. Devon Johnston’s costumes and props reference the Nordic origins while, for example, giving the Trolls an 80s Rock-meets-Punk aesthetic.

With a cast of seven women and three men (as per their preferred pronouns), gender-blind casting allows the women to relish major male roles as well as invest what could be seen as the mother, virgin, ‘loose woman’ tropes with robust performances. The men get to show their versatility with three or four roles each – as do most of the cast. All bring well-focused energy and intelligent understanding to their roles, embodying them with impressive physicality.  

Devon Johnson plays Peer Gynt in the first three of the five Acts. (I will use character-appropriate pronouns in what follows.) Having stranded the vexed Aase (Georgia Kellet), his mother, on their roof, fought the bully Aslak (Mycah Keall) and his cronies, become entranced by the pure and virtuous Solveig (Olivia Chelmis) who won’t dance with him given his reputation, seduced Ingrid (Nanuk Black) the reluctant bride of insipid Mads Moen (Jeremy Hunt) then abandoned her, Peer is banished to the mountains. In a possibly guilt-induced delirium, Peer is seduced in turn by ‘She in the Green’ (Emma Barrett), daughter of the Troll King (Felix Crossley-Pritchard). It is he who explains the difference between mankind and trolls: Man says, “Be yourself,” while Trolls say, “Yourself be enough”.

Peer’s escape from life as a Troll is driven more by self-preservation than a desire for self-improvement. He still wants to be king of somewhere. The amorphous Boyg (voiced by Nanuk Black), who claims to be “Myself,” enigmatically counsels him to “go round”, so when Peer builds himself a house in the mountains and Solveig turns up, having decided life with him will be more interesting (or that her role in life is to save his soul), and he is confronted by ‘She in the Green’ and their troll son (Felix Faure), Peer decides there is no direct route to deserving Solveig’s love; he has to ‘go round’. A very long way round, as it turns out. But first he takes his dying mother on one last fantastical ride.

Now Zoë Stokes becomes Peer and, in a scene suggesting a club for entitled gentlemen of the world, philosophical discourse reveals his exploits as a businessman, trader in heathen artefacts and slave trader. His aspiration now is to be Emperor of the World. Robbed of his yacht and adrift in the desert, he asks God to forget the world at large and focus on him, eats what he thinks is ginger root and trips out … He finds jewels, profit/prophet word-play colours his encounter with the seductive Anitra (Mycah Keall), who also robs him. Peer fantasises about writing an autobiography that teaches men how to live, confuses the Sphynx with the Boyg and finds himself welcomed into an insane asylum as The Emperor of Revelation, only to be told by Dr Begriffenfeldt (Jeremy Hunt) that “at 11pm last night pure reason passed away.” The inmates are so focused on being their deluded selves that they have no empathy for anyone else (i.e. they are sociopaths). Peer finds no joy in finally being crowned “The Emperor of Self” by them.  

Thunder and lightning finds Peer on a boat with a Captain and passengers, caught up in a storm at sea. They are shipwrecked, Peer clings to a piece of flotsam and when the Cook (Devon Johnson; an ingenious casting choice) wants to hang on to it too, he refuses and consigns her to the deep. Thus, in this production, we see Peer drown himself. (I don’t think we can read it as him repudiating his younger, immature self.)

Return to his homeland paints Peer as a has-been who never reached anything like his potential. The famous onion-peeling scene is cut short (as is much of the text) so the point about finding nothing at the centre is lost. As he finds his way back to his house in the mountains, Peer is confronted by the Button Moulder (Felix Faure) who wants to melt him down and recast him, unless he can identify a time when he has truly been himself. Peer’s assertion he has always been himself is contradicted by the Troll King who asserts Peer has been a troll for most of his life (interesting how that term resonates with its contemporary usage).

Even the Devil, aka Skinny One (Nanuk Black), judges Peer unqualified for Hell – but didn’t he murder the Cook, not to mention his other crimes? (And while I’m being picky, shouldn’t the Skinny One’s hooves be cloven?)

Will Peer find redemption with the ever-faithful Solveig? Thankfully, in answer to his existential question, “Where am I?” Rudkin and/or Jamieson-Karaha reduce Solveig’s impossibly pure fidelity and deluded opinion of Peer to one simple and credible answer. And we, like Peer, are left to contemplate its credibility, as a reality or poetic symbol, while the Button Moulder lurks.

As a showcase of emerging professional talent, this Peer Gynt delivers the goods by capturing the essence of a timeless tale.

*[Ibsen published Peer Gynt in 1867, 17 years after his first crude attempt, Catalina, a decade after his bleak The Vikings of Helgeland (discussed in my review of Hone Kouka’s Nga Tangata Toa), and following his satirical Love’s Comedy (1862) and poetical ethics epic Brand (1865).]


John Smythe November 20th, 2020

If I offend it is with goodwill ... As an objective fact it would be inaccurate to descibe this cast in gender binary terms. In the programme, however, each actor uses either she/her or he/him in the biographical notes alongside their headshots. Hence: "With a cast of seven women and three men (as per their preferred pronouns) ..." 

Anonymous November 19th, 2020

I feel like the "as per their preferred pronouns" comment was unnecessary, rude and nothing to do with the play. 

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