I mustn't fail to record an experience we had on the evening of March 21st, when for three rapidly passing hours we were entertained, troubled and impressed by a performance of Ibsen's Peer Gynt at the new Irving Greenberg Theatre Centre on Wellington Street. The Thirdwall Theatre Company presented this play in the studio theatre, sparsely set with four white curtains hung on wires and a few boxes on the floor between the parallel blocks of seating for an audience of no more than 80 people at a time.
Ottawa's Ambassador for Norway stated that, "to know Peer Gynt is to know the Norwegian" and the actor who played the part, Andy Massingham (whom I've just realised I also saw a few months ago in Ayckbourn's How the Other Half Loves, at the Gladstone Theatre), seemed to understand Peer's character thoroughly, which has a good few similarities with Goethe's Faust. Ibsen's script had been translated by the Canadian writer Henry Beissel and the translation given a few tweaks by Mr Massingham himself. The cleverly composed music for the production was by Nick Carpenter who brought more than one reference to Grieg's more familiar Peer Gynt Suites into his score.
The scene in the last act where Peer Gynt peels the "onion" of his Self (the shipwrecked traveller, the king of lunatics, the archeologist, the prophet in the desert, the man of leisure and so on) to see what he can find at the core—nothing!—was particularly well done, the actor tearing skin and layers from a real, red onion and chucking them all over the floor. We were sitting close enough to hear the flesh rip and smell the onion!
Now we don't have the Canadian translation at home, but we do have Chris' old school text book, the Penguin Classics edition of Peer Gynt translated by Peter Watts, treasured by Chris since he played the part of the Button Moulder in the Huntingdon Grammar School production of 1967, and in any version or language, the play has unforgettable lines, so I'll quote some.
Peer lying to his mother about his reindeer hunt in Scene 1:
... the reindeer plunged us both down to the depths! At our backs the gloomy rock-face - under us the deep abyss! First we hurtled through a cloud-sheet, next we split a flock of seagulls, scattering them in all directions while they filled the air with screeching...
Abducting Ingrid at the end of Act 1:
Bridegroom: Peer Gynt - look at him, there on the hillside!
Many voices: With the bride!
Peer: There soar two tawny eagles - and wild geese fly to the southlands, while here I stumble and trudge knee deep in quagmire and slime.
And so he wanders into the Kingdom of the Trolls (very wild and appropriately lit in this production, the thinly clad Trolls sporting pointy ears and long brown tails).
Old Man (Troll King): Outside among men, where the skies are bright, there's a saying 'Man, to thyself be true'; but here among trolls, the saying runs: 'Troll, to thyself be - enough.' [...] Ah yes, my son, we must give you some treatment to cure all this human nature of yours.
Peer: What will you do?
Old Man: Simply scratch your left eye a little bit, so that you'll see askew ...
Peer fights off the invisible Boyg (who "conquers without a blow") and to the accompaniment of church bells in the distance (like the Easter music that saves Goethe's Faust from suicide) The Voice admits:
He was too strong. There were women behind him.
Åse (pronounced something like Orza or Ohza) his mother and Solveig (pronounced Sohl-vey), the innocent girl in his life, are the women in question, i.e. the ones who love Peer for himself. Solveig was very well cast in this production, a first year student from the Ottawa School of Speech and Drama taking the part.
Solveig: Coming here on my skis I asked the way; they said, 'Where are you going?' I answered, 'Home.'
Peer can't take her up on her offer though, shamed as he is by the memory of his night in the Hall of the Mountain King with the Troll King's daughter.
The Woman: When the autumn came and my child was born, I had only the devil to act as my midwife - can you wonder I'm ugly now?
Our hero remembers Solveig waiting for him in the hut:
Peer: To meet her like this - just as I am - would be sacrilege.
Solveig: Are you coming?
Peer: [...] You must wait; it's dark and I have a load to carry. [...] Stay where you are. I shall carry it all.
Solveig: Don't be long.
Peer: Be patient, my love. Long or short, you must wait.
Solveig: I will wait.
Years and years later (at the end of Act V), after a lifelong search for his "Empire" over continents and seas, meeting cynics, gold-diggers, madmen and women who seduce and exploit him on the way, Peer returns empty handed to Solveig's hut where, as an old woman now symbolically blind and leaning on a stick, she is still waiting for him, singing to herself. Desperate to prove to the "Button Moulder," who threatens to melt him down like a useless button for the manufacture of other souls, that he is too sinful to be a mere nonentity, world-weary Peer throws himself at Solveig's feet and pleads for help.
Peer: Cry out how sinfully I have offended!
Solveig: You have sinned in nothing, my only love. [She gropes for him and finds him.]
Button Moulder: The list, Peer Gynt.
Peer: Call out my crimes!
Solveig [sitting down beside him]: You have made my life a beautiful song [...]
Peer: Then I am lost ... Unless you can solve a riddle. [...] Where has Peer Gynt been since last we met?
Peer: With his destiny on his brow. Where? Since he sprang from the mind of God? Can you tell me that? If you cannot tell, I must go down to the shadowy land.
Solveig: Oh, your riddle is easy. [...] In my faith, in my hope, and in my love.
At the end of the play she starts to sing again, like a mother singing a lullaby to a wayward child while the Voice behind the hut utters its last warning:
Button Moulder: Peer, we shall meet at the last cross-roads ...
My husband, at a personal crossroads in his life and career, thought it all rather too close to the bone for comfort and I couldn't sleep afterwards either for thinking of the Solveigs I have known. Such is the power of poetry!