Peer Gynt

Yohangza Theatre Company. Oz Asia Festival. The Dunstan Playhouse. 19 Sept 2012

Before the show starts, the matinee audience of mainly high school students is buzzing with chit chat. How will they take a two and a half hour, five act sur-titled production in Korean, adapted from an 1868 convoluted verse script by Norwegian playwright, Henrik Ibsen?

The main protagonist, Peer Gynt, leaves the protection of his loving mother to become a lifelong wanderer. On his journey he is embroiled with trolls, does combat with the Great Boyg, becomes king in a mental asylum in Cairo, and falls into many other adventures. Near the end of his life he meets the Button Moulder who holds him to account. At the final moment, Solvieg, whom he met and put on hold early on his journey, enters. He has been redeemed by the steadfast love of a good woman.

The Dunstan Playhouse stage is framed by a twelve metre high mirror running its full length. On one side, gym equipment, on the other, a lounge space with platforms and potted trees. Most of the stage is covered by a Perspex sided sand pit. Il Jin Im, the Designer, has created an imaginative set that enables the many scenes of the play to be presented without disrupting the action flow. But the set is only one component of this multi-layered production. The other layers include the spoken Korean text, the projected English sur-titles, mime, dance, props and an innovative musical soundscape designed by Bum Hun Lee. A stand-alone experience is a rendition of Solvieg’s Song written by Edvard Krieg; hauntingly beautiful. The evocative Lighting Design is by Kook Koon Yeo.

The lights fade; the soundscape begins, and for two and a half hours the Yohangza Theatre Company lead us through the magic that is Peer Gynt’s journey. Seldom have I seen an audience so transfixed by such a long piece of theatre.

The Director, Jung-Ung Yang manoeuvres his energetic and gymnastic actors through a gamut of emotional and physical intensities. From the entry scene with Peer Gynt in a blue bath tub (behind his mother who sits astride a small red children’s bike) till the final bows by the actors and the musicians; Yang gripped the audience in this interpretation of Ibsen’s epic verse play about being true to oneself and the consequences when one isn’t.

The fifteen actors are a study in fluid ensemble work playing a vast array of supporting characters. The three standouts were Peer Gynt played by Cheong Hae-kyun; Ase, his mother, played by Kim Eun Hee; and Kang Cheong Im as Solvieg, Peer Gynt’s long suffering sweetheart. But it is Cheong Hae-kyun as Peer Gynt who carries the weight of the production on his shoulders - being on stage for the full two and a half hours.

Ibsen is regarded as a founder of Modernism in theatre. He wrote plays about psychological conflict, unconventional social relationships, or denunciations of society’s moral values. Which brings me to the nudity in this production; for the largely high school audience, this production presents a real life Adult Anatomy 101 experience, but when the novelty wears off there is a realisation that this is not gratuitous flesh revelation, but a metaphor for Peer Gynt’s life passage. By the end of the production and the final extended full frontal nude scene, there is silence and respect for this taboo breaking staging device.

Ibsen set out to show that in order to live a full and valuable life we need to be authentic… how Peer Gynt comes to this realisation is the stuff of a great play. Does this Oz Asia Festival production reveal Ibsen’s grand concept to a contemporary audience? The answer is a resounding yes, given the prolonged applause by an enraptured audience during the bows; an epic journey for both actors and audience. And over all this the 12 metre mirror reflected everything, yet impartially said nothing, allowing the audience to make its own judgement about Peer Gynt’s journey as presented through this stunningly beautiful production.

Martin Christmas

When: 19 to 21 Sept
Where: Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre
Bookings: Closed