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Festival Review: Peter Gynt ****

Michael Cox reviews an enjoyable production with a magnificent central performance.

Peter Gynt is a large production. There is no denying that. David Hare’s script, a modern take on Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt with a Scottish twist, manages to get the sprawling action of a man with a knack of telling tall tales, who crashes the wedding of a former flame, encounters fantastic creatures, becomes a tycoon before loosing it all and has a debate with a Death-like figure into a three-hour and twenty-minute running time. It’s all rather impressive.

Most impressive is James McArdie in the title character. Gynt is a near-impossible acting nut to crack: a compelling character who can shun sympathy for scorn in the blink of an eye and must age decades over the dramatic action. McArdie performs magnificently, taking delight in the early flippant moments of storytelling and youthful misadventure and becomes heart-wrenching in the last act as he stares at the mortal abyss. It is a forceful portrayal full of energy that manages to be constantly compelling for the entire run time.

Director Jonathan Kent has managed to create a huge production that is engaging to behold. Large set pieces roll on and off the stage while the action traverses space and time, and the ensemble create a company of characters that are always interesting to spend time with.

And yet, with all of the grandeur and performances, something still seems to be missing. The running time passes briskly and there is always much to enjoy, yet for a play with such a long running time, much of the dramatic action feels a bit slight. Only the final act, when Gynt faces off with the feared Button Moulder and his mortality, does the production rise up to something meaningful.

All of which makes this a Gynt to be enjoyed but not necessarily cherished. It’s fun while it lasts, but like Gynt’s flippant stories, many of the details will quickly be forgotten.

Peter Gynt’s run at the Festival Theatre for the Edinburgh International Festival has ended. It returns to the National Theatre in London until October 8th.

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