Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Peer Gynt

Photo by Marion Wheeler

Endangered Productions presents PEER GYNT, Play By Hendrik Ibsen, Music by Edvard Grieg at the Paddington RSL CLub, Oxford St, Paddington. 30th June - 3rd July.

A month and a few more weeks ago at the RSL Club in Paddington, Endangered Productions under the Direction of Christine Logan, 80, or so, performers took a curtain call which was enthusiastically given by an audience who had just witnessed an Australian first: a presentation of a performance (edited) of the play PEER GYNT (1867), by Hendrick Ibsen, Translated by May-Brit Akerholt, with the incidental music by Edvard Greig (1876) under the Direction of Peter Alexander. Meanwhile, the Sydney Theatre Company (STC), Sydney's Leading company and, arguably, Australia's leading theatre company, were showing their adaptation of Anne Bronte's only novel, THE TENANT OF WILDFELL HALL, adapted by Emme Hoy, and another Australian first, a new play, TOP COAT, by Michelle Law, with a combined cast of, perhaps, 20 actors (only). Both these plays it seems, were needing more time for more drafts (I've been told) to make them ready for the spotlight of the lavish budget of a heavily resourced STC main stage presentation. The contrast between the plans and objectives of these two 'production houses' and the result on the stages could not be more clear.

As I experienced the audience's excited response to the evening's events and watching the gathered artists joy at the reception they were given, I could only wonder at the power of a community that determines that the discipline of the performing arts is a necessary thread in the fabric of our civilisation and so, sacrifice time to a physical, vocal, mental and emotional demand to create a neglected and powerful philosophical work an airing, that in Australian terms is an endangered 'animal' as it disappears from performance memory because of the neglect of the major professional companies.

In this audience there were in attendance a crowd of professional people who had seen or performed in this work in times past, alongside a well read audience and their friends who were seeing and hearing this great piece (of almost impossible staging demands) of. entertainment and confronting intellectual provocations for the first time. A combination of poetic drama, dance and music, shifting through realism, social satire and surrealism, across the landscapes of the Norwegian woods, into the deserts of the Middle East - through the palaces of the mythical and historic residences via the witnessing of weddings, births and deaths, corporate greed and madness to predictions in pursuit of the meaning of existence through Peer Gynt's pilgrimage of self discovery. 

Under the aegis of the Creative Director of Endangered Productions, Karen Lambert and her partner (in crime) Christin Logan, who is also the Director of PEER GYNT, the performing company is led by Philipe Klaus, as Peer, and Elaine Hudson, as his mother, Aase. Both these actors shoulder the demands of leading this company of mixed experience and gifts by committed example through this work. The clarity and sprightly energy of Ms Hudson charges the narrative with energy and a peerless perception of the dreadful circumstances of this specimen of humanity, of a single parent having to struggle in a judgemental world to grow a man, a possible pillar of her community. Ms Hudson sparks, in the scenes with her son, lived by Mr Klaus, into a handsome and beguiling promise of leadership and courage in his telling of the hunting of  the deer, who then shamefacedly dwindles into a rascal in the early acts of the play - that sets up the tender and grief filled farewell on Aase's deathbed (assisted by the beautiful offer of Greig's Death of Aase) - and to propel his focus as he takes hold of the late scenes of the text, supported by a huge collection of other artists playing multiple roles, especially Alan Faulkner (Troll King), Jack Elliot Mitchell (The Thin Man), Katherine Munro (Woman in Green and Anitra), with a singer Emily Turner (Solveig) and the ebullient joy of Wei Jang in all of her character explorations, as stand-outs for me. 

The task of bringing all the parts of Ibsen's anti-hero to life and balance, through writing of comedy, satire, confronting realism and melodramatic, melancholic tragedy, to find the multiple facets of a complex human begging for the enlightening solution to the timeless riddle of the Sphinx, both unconsciously and consciously, so as to be able to comprehend the meaning of life and the philosophic landscape that Peer Gynt finds himself in, is a monumental one and Mr Klaus stretching and finding his artistic muscles maps for us clues that Ibsen himself seems to be just finding clarity for as he puts pen to paper, to embody a man, even if it is belatedly, in heroic manner and action. As with Shakespeare's Hamlet, Ibsen's Peer Gynt only finds a truth at the end of a long physical and emotional journey. Each challenge, each success and especially each failure maketh this man. Mr Klaus actor's intelligence and growing grasp of the greatness of his challenge was awakening gorgeously in front of us and will undoubtedly manifest itself more clearly every time he embarks and completes this enormous journey that Ibsen has given us. (Alas, there were only four performances.)

This production has been edited down to a three hour meeting that in the original is some five and a half hours long! What is not shown on stage at the Paddo RSL Club, may make a whole for the sense to reveal more easily Ibsen's intentions. However, this company to realise Ibsen's intentions has chosen a contemporary Australian translation by a Norwegian born writer, May-Brit Akerholt, who now lives, has lived, in Sydney's Blue Mountains. Fortunately for this Company Ms Akerholt has acted as Dramaturg as well as translator and was present throughout the whole process (at every rehearsal) to shape and edit and guide the Director in her choices that had to be made for this production to tell the story and thematics in a curtailed time frame. This translation is wonderfully funny (cheeky). Contemporary funny with all its social critique and wisdom still intact. (Ms Akerholt has had more than twenty of her translations produced by leading companies around Australia and some overseas. Ibsen, Strindberg, Jon Fosse have had her skill and devotion.)

Says Ms Akerholt: 

You cannot translate a piece of literature. You rewrite a work of fiction written in one language to another, with the aim of creating a new language that has the same effect on audiences or readers as it has in its original form. Ibsen's power lies to a large extent in his language, and in the way he manipulates it. ... Peer Gynt is written in a variety of verse forms ...

One of the most striking aspects of Ibsen's modernity was his mixture of the comic and the tragic. Peer Gynt is written with contagious exuberance and vitality. ... However, it is also a highly political and serious dramatisation of a life wasted in pursuing dreams, fleeing from responsibility, seeking power instead of love. ... (Peer Gynt is) a play full of metaphors and fairy tales and symbols. ... 

We accept the dream-like figures entering Peer's life, because the play creates strong worlds with their own 'inner logic', where characters and action become the logic. When the Button Moulder comes to fetch Peer's soul (to melt it down to start again), we go with the play into the world of legends, and in the whole of the last act, into the worlds in which folklore, myth, fairy tale and reality jostle for space. The trolls in Dovre Mountain are dramatisations of famous fairy tales and stories, but to Peer they are both alluring in his search for the princess and her fortune, and frightening because they become the barriers to his search for himself.

... what Henrik Ibsen's drama did (was to transform) drama and theatre at a time when the western stage still flourished with melodrama, French farces and romantic comedies into an art that laid bare a society based on hypocrisy and double standards."

The Choreography by Alison Lee brought thrills in the Company Dance of the Hall of the Mountain (Troll) King and in the sinuous Arabian scene featuring Anitra - the seductress of the desert  - and throughout the rest of the long journey of Peer, all supported by the 30 strong orchestra led by Peter Alexander gifting the audience with Edvard Greig's famous, romantic score, coloured further by the opportunity that Grieg gives the human voice, the Coro Austral Chorus - a chamber choir - led by Margot McLaughlin There are 26 seperate numbers, short and long, interspersed throughout the sprawling epic play. "In every instance", says the conductor, Peter Alexander, "(the music) intensify and magnify the dramatic situations." The inspiration of Ibsen's characters and story, struck a deep chord of emotional cultural identity in Greig and he ultimately wrote some ninety minutes of music. He, subsequently, organised some of it into two Suites that have become a staple for international orchestras and a part of my musical education in primary school.

The Scenic design on a tiny temporary forestage by Sandy Gray is more than just suggestible clues to location and is supported by the lighting of Michael Schell to create vivid atmosphere, that is, as well, sympathetic to the Visual Images created by Andrew Mill, with the Video and Projection provided by Wayne Richmond. There was a huge team resource of craftspeople to help realise the design of costume led by Miriam Lohmann

This production of PEER GYNT is significant for what it has achieved with little to no budget to reveal the great challenge of this play. It is even more significant as an example of Artistic leadership. The Leadership of a collection of mostly women, who decided to stage, to resurrect, a giant of a play, by one of the giants of dramatic literature, Henrik Ibsen, and a musical score of one of the giants of classical music, Edvard Greig. A unique presentation, a first in Australian history, a play with music that is capable of entertaining an audience and also through legend, myth and fairy story as touchstones for an entry point to provide a poetic critique of a society riven by hypocrisy, greed for wealth and power, that one hundred and fifty years later is still poetically able to be embraced and still found to be exhaustedly relevant in its societal present day boundaries.

Whereas, what has the leadership down at the kingdom of Kip Williams, down at the Sydney Theatre Company (STC) elected to present us as the best contemporary work available? Have you already forgotten?

The contrast of leadership values could not be more stark. 

The Professionals that were in attendance at the PaddIngton RSL Club at PEER GYNT's opening night was stacked with the great and interested. Subsequent performances (only 4) were also attended by the wise and thoughtful theatre audiences. Those of us who watch the National Theatre Broadcasts at the DENDY or the PALACE Cinemas (the Orpheum and the Ritz, as well) for $25-$27, to get our legitimate stage experiences were at the PADDO RSL CLUB. We were there less we forget what good theatre is. Lest We Forget.

Congratulations to the ironically titled ENDANGERED PRODUCTIONS, in their choice of play and courage to do it.

P.S. When I was a student at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA), my year of study performed the whole of PEER GYNT, under the Direction of Alexander Hay, our Head of Acting (1971). It began at 8.00pm and finished at 1.30am. There were five actors that played a portion of Peer. Tony Llwellyn-Jones carried an early Peer, that included the Deer Hunting speech. I got to play the whole of Act Five Peer Gynt. I began that responsibility at midnight after playing much else before and finished at 1.30am. Tony and I attended, together, the RSL opening performance, retrieving the pleasures of this play. (We also presented on the same set Dylan Thomas' play/poem: UNDER MILK WOOD (1954), to ensure that the full company of actors (in all 16 of us) got a fuller share of acting challenges.

Alex, a few years later presented with another year of students the whole of the cycle of five plays in G.B. Shaw's BACK TO METHUSELAH (1922) up in the Jane Street Theatre. Those were the days. When training was training. Indeed. By DOING.

John Clark, through Coach House Books (A new imprint of Currency Press), has just published his book: AN EYE FOR TALENT: A LIFE AT NIDA, which is a recollection of the History of NIDA (PEER GYNT is mentioned) and the SydneyTheatre scene. It is a comprehensive and informative work, which I highly recommend for any serious theatre person.

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