Somewhere between the eager, calculated ambition of Julien Sorel, and the holy mania of Hamsun’s narrator in Hunger, there was Peer Gynt, a provincial boy who wanted to be king. Writing in Italy, between the shaky fervour of his early fame, and the secure wisdom of his mature psychological dramas, recently expatriated Ibsen was waxing uncomfortably personal. The first half, an act of plotting bien fait, realism-however-fanciful, is his past; the second, a phantasmagoric circular nightmare, his imagined future. For five acts, Ibsen makes Peer hop from whim to whim, day-dreaming himself into glorious roles and escaping every moment of existential discomfort, confusing this wild gratification of impulsive desires and learnt ambition with truthfulness to oneself.
In Dante’s Inferno, the antechamber to Hell is reserved for those who drifted through life without ever getting behind a cause of belief. Having gambled morals, principles and relationships away for a life lived fully, Peer is revealed to be merely a self-centred little man, not different from a common small-town butcher. He spends his last dramatic moments chased by the Button Moulder with a big ladle, confronted with the very destiny he fears the most: insignificance; oblivion. Categorically denied the last honour of being a great sinner (“merely average”, quips the Button Moulder), unworthy of Devil’s time, he will be moulded into a button.
A sprawling dramatic poem, Peer Gynt careens freely between social verisimilitude and outrageous flights of fancy. In its psychological externalization, each troll is a momentarily irresistible girl, each nightmare a folktale monster. It was not intended for performance, and Ibsen exuberantly did away with reasonable staging demands: spanning 50 years, two continents, an obscene number of characters, changes of tone, pace and fabular focus, it is as unstageable as a play gets. But it was Heiner Muller who said that only dramatic writing that cannot be realised on stage is of any use for the theatre.
Daniel Schlusser takes the text as the starting point to explore the questions and answers Ibsen posed himself. His Peer Gynt eludes, disappoints, dissonates, amazes, stretches and contracts, and meanwhile disagrees with most of what we see on Australian stages these days: despite occasionally looking it, it is not lyrical, not pretty, not atmospheric, not sentimental, and not unknotting itself with silly humour or cute explanations. lt unravels its threads of inquiry with slow thoroughness of a Hans van den Broeck (not among the C de la B for no reason), and yet the complex performance requires no long-winded explanations before it can be fully felt. Its intellectual rigour is solid enough to allow itself wild playfulness. It is gorgeous, masterful theatre.
It is entirely possible to read this Peer as a satire on conventional naturalism. The establishing scene, that two-minute cliché of actor milling around the stage, unaware of the fourth-wall crowd, is here stretched into an unrelenting, 30-or-so-minute setting up of the performance/wedding stage. A fridge is hauled in, a pool filled with balloons, the actors walk on and off stage wrapped in a visible, but gauze-thin layer of heightened stage presence: bringing the drinks, the beach towels, talking into their phones, conducting barely audible conversations, whispered gossip. The endless wedding implosion that builds up is an opaque enactment of a complex social situation, breaking into mini-conflicts, small seductions, power negotiations in far corners. All a sort of long pout at the audience that wants staged life.
However, it is when the performance breaks into the song and dance of serving-the-play, and the performers build up heightened actorliness, that strangeness sets in. In a wonderful inversion, the text is not a source of truth, but an exclamatory deceit. Once literary faithfulness start showing, it looks incongruous to whatever stage reality has been created. The performers recite Ibsen’s extravagant language and emotions sounding more and more like delusional lunatics. Gynt fornicates in the forest, becomes a troll, abandons lovers, grows old, and the closer the performance follows the plotline, the more it seems to descend into plotless chaos. Aase dies when appropriate, then resumes her stage life the hungover morning after. Supporting characters loiter on stage, or drift off into small games. Off-handedly providing the dramatic arc, the production ends in medias res of psychological carnage, leaving us confused, hovering without catharsis (save for a small burst of soap bubbles).
Arbitrating the guilt for this life less lived, Schlusser avoids the easy parallel with our media-fed crave for the semiotics of success rather than success itself (remember teenage Grace in Sally Potter’s YES who, when asked what she wants to be, torpidly sighs: “Famous…”?). In Kyle Baxter’s performance, Peer is not a megalomaniac boy whose unstructured, but violent ambition ruins women, and then himself. He is an extraordinarily passive character instead, prancing on the outskirts of the stage playing with props, being laughed at by the cashed-up bogans and mellowly accepting their ridicule as a sign of belonging. If he is a man-boy, it is because the entire group has a vested interest in keeping him on their own level of existential blindness, and it is his overdeveloped imagination that keeps him losing whatever path he may have, not selfish hunger. Ibsen’s Gynt confuses the symbol for the meaning, hunting solid objects that stand for power: money, ruthlessness, detachment, crowns or roles (he wants to be an emperor, an explorer, a philosopher). Schlusser’s Gynt, a bubble-wrapped boy living on the cusp of the most profligate moment in history, in a wealthy, First-World metropolis, doesn’t ask, but is constantly offered. Rather than spreading his ambition too thinly, he loses himself by not being able to refuse. Aase, the mother who lives through her adored child (beautifully calibrated Edwina Wren), forms an alliance with Solveig, obsessively exchanging stories of their dear boy. And Solveig, the silver-prayer-book docile image of all the 19th-century girl cliches, is in Karen Sibbing’s manically delicate performance shown to be a wilful child, a mind as unformed as Peer’s. If she grows old waiting for her childhood crush to return, it is not God-condoned devotion that keeps her in their hut, but infantile refusal to burst her own bubble of romantic fantasy.
In the setting up, it soon becomes clear that men and women live separate fantasies: while women strut on high heels, drink champagne and throw tantrums over their wedding dreams, men set up their beer and Fußball den at the other end of the stage. Unable to break the chalk circle of the masculine group, Gynt becomes a toy boy for the women, with all the confused disrespect that this powerless subordination breeds. In the interplay of outpours of egocentric affection, everyone uses everyone, and everyone feels a winner, yet everyone also feels virtuous, affectionate, generous. When, in the last minutes of the play, Peer Gynt begs Solveig to tell him who he is, where he is, she glows with giggly joy as she announces: “You live in my head, in my song, in my dreams”. Nobody comes off clean: just like Torvald is himself trapped in the dollhouse he has built for Nora, so are these Gen Y child-women shown to be complicit in the infantilisation of the men that hurt and abandon them. In a particularly morbid observation, Solveig jumps into a noise-making, ridiculing frenzy, trying to get Peer’s attention away from his dying mother. (Whether I share this boy-friendly thesis is not the point: it is rare to see a theatre production intellectually both brave and sound enough to freely disagree with.)
However, this psychological triangle is refracted through so many distancing prisms that one could not know the text and still leave with a headful of thoughts. Ibsen’s poem already opens up conflicting levels of narrative. Is it a socially verosimile fable, or hallucinatory psychological realism? It is a story of a story-teller, a man-onion who lies because he couldn’t find his way out of his own mind. It is, finally, half-autobiography and half-anxiety. Schlusser’s production piles the layers even higher. On the boards, it builds storeys of vertiginous conflicting realities: the play slowly establishes itself as a party cum wedding; the wedding is a rehearsal; the rehearsal collapses under the disagreeing perceptions of the participants’ roles; Gynt’s entire life, fantastic as it is, probably no more than an overnight trip that ensues as the rehearsal descends into drunken shenanigans, and then further into an orgiastic ritual of sacrifice. Georgie Read, a woman in 1920s attire, walks through the set untouched by the bogan mayhem. And yet constantly, as a man with a panama hat runs to fetch the characters that drift out into the courtyard through the door at the back of the stage, there is a subtle feeling that we may be looking at a bunch of asylum crazies biding their time. (The crucial moment in Act IV, in which Peer is crowned the emperor of a mental hospital, is not so much missing as dispersed, both subtly pointed at and self-evident.) All apart from the simple fact that, since the characters make demands on the sound technicians and call the stage manager in to wipe the party mess, we all clearly admit to being in the theatre.
Indeed, one of the main concerns of this Peer Gynt is the multiplicity of make-believe , and the disorder that ensues in leakage. While Ibsen remains unclear about how much of a dream the entire story is, Schlusser keeps us wondering whose dream it is. Layering theatricality and anti-theatricality, virtually all stage action is apportioned into multiple collective illusions with varying numbers of participants, and each one looks equally dubious: from the footballer-wife paradise of cheap positional goods, to Peer and Solveig’s romantic idyll. Turning the wedding into a rehearsal, thus, is not just a stylistic device, but a gesture of utmost importance. There is no logic to rehearsing a performative act, except as an anxiety attenuator; yet it absorbs and breathes that same anxiety because it becomes a fragile battleground of dream and reality – just like the theatre turns into the battleground of ideas not because it is a safe space, but because it isn’t; just like one’s fantasies need to be corrected before they result in actions, and why play-acting is not for sissies. As these self-declared bubbles of comfort build up, Schlusser examines the burning violence they create outside. Wars, gangs, social groups, fashion trends and riots are all no more than collective fantasies in action, indoor safety upkept with violence radiating outwards. Thus the boganville, grown heavy and momentuous with alcohol, turns into a gang mutilation of Anitra (Sarah Armanious), the wedding dress-maker and sacrificial wog. Georgie Read, who follows individuals around wide-eyed and curious, mimicking their bacchanalia with utmost seriousness (from stripper dances to senseless violence), as if trying to prevent the friction between the conflicting frenzies by upholding them all, is not merely an ambulant comic relief, but a body that turns every quotidian affectation, every social convention, into deadpan absurdity.
And yet this same theatre never becomes a collective fantasy of its own. With heavily dramatic wasted on nothing truthful nor meaningful, and savagely grotesque endpoints of mundane behaviour played with glassy, anti-spectacular neutrality, the presentation is jarringly anti-empathetic. It betrays expectations with such cold consistency that we walk out feeling anything but lulled. Giddy, rather, and hiccuppy and confused, while the kick is slowly making its way to the gut. Despite its tone, looking all things wrong (lyrical, cute, naive, sentimental, funny), the final portrait is bleak, damning. Peer Gynt is no longer the sad story of one lost boy. Tonight, the tragedy is collective.
Peer Gynt. Based on Henrik Ibsen, directed by Daniel Schlusser. Set and Costume design Anna Cordingley. Lighting design Kimberly Kwa. Sound designers/composers Nick van Cuylenburg and Martin Kay. Stage manager Jo Trevathan. Performed by Kyle Baxter, Edwina Wren, Karen Sibbing, Heloise Jackson, Justin Arnold, Nikki Shiels, Rebecca Bower, Annie Last, Maj Thomsen, Nick Jamieson, Katie-Jean Harding, Georgie Read, Josh Price, Sarah Armanious, Alexander England, Mike Steele, Kevin Fa’asitua Hofbauer, Kade Greenland. VCA, 26 March – 1 April.