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Peer Gynt at Gålåvatnet (Gålå Lake): Five Acts of Charming Egotism

By: Benedikte Berntzen

Peer Gynt
Peer Gynt is a celebration at Gålåvatnet. Photo: Ibsen.net

When the busdriver calls the production phenomenal and assures us that we have something to look forward to as he drives us across the mountain on Peer Gynt Road, we have high expectations concerning this year´s Peer Gynt at Gålåvatnet. And what an evening it turned out to be in Happy Country: the sun shining from a clear blue sky spread a glow of self-satisfaction and good mood over this summer evening. The natural amphitheatre which accommodates an audience of about two thousand was full to the brim and it turned out to be a special experience, with Ibsen´s imaginative versification, encounters with incredible characters, and the landscape´s natural magnificence. But is, as Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson suggested in 1867, "Five Acts of Egotism" a bit on the long side?

Peer Gynt is the Norwegians´ favourite play, and for a long time we have guffawed at Ibsen´s portrayal of a teller of tall stories from the rocky hills who calls himself "a world citizen by temperament". The drama has a central place in our national literature, and Grieg´s music is on every kindergarten syllabus, but this unsoiled position should not overshadow that Peer Gyntis one of Ibsen´s most performed plays; in 2011 it was staged in, among other places, Moscow, Dublin, Kansas City, Chicago, London and Berlin.

 

We don´t see much of Ibsen the world dramatist in Gålå, for as the legend goes, and the local population keeps repeating, a Per Gynt lived in Hågå in Sødorp. But as in many other Ibsen plays, it is not the place of the action and the incorporated traditions, but rather tone and reactions which contribute to a universal impression. Because Peer speaks to people from all continents. Which one of us wouldn´t like to let go of seriousness and sober considerations? Who among us can throw the first stone at the rocky hills? Peer falls for every temptation and shows us our own inconstancy.

 

Dennis Storhøi (52) is a blond and charming Peer who glows when he rants and rails in the local dialect in the first part of the drama, and plays havoc with both Aase and the wedding guests at Hægstad. The poor and tattered Peer was left nothing by his father and a treasure trove of tales and wit by his mother. Peer and Aase are, despite their humiliating social downfall, content with living a journey of dreams where the honour of the days of yore are restored in rhymes and fantasies. Storhøi leaps easily between the different moods of the text, which change with the Norwegian mountain weather, and parries the taunts of villagers and women with impressive wit and physical performance. But Peer is not old before he shows his more fickle side. He has himself the characteristics of a two-headed troll, and there isn´t a big step from a harmless charm offensive, such as "I know many a thing, and will know more" to the tougher "I´m a werewolf at night; - I´ll bite your loins and your back", which shocks a young Solveig. Lured by promises of glittering gold, a kingdom, and a bit of hip swinging, Peer ends up with the trolls, these half-wits who live by themselves at the outskirts of Northern Europecivilisation, where they celebrate their own excellence. Accompanied by the cowbells´ idiotic chimes, the trolls want Peer to sacrifice his human sight to become the Dovre King´s heir. A small scratch in his eye will adjust Peer so he, too, will see the world like they do. But as with all serious demands, Peer makes a retreat with a bit of help from home after having called his …mother.

 

Dovre King:
What´s the difference between troll and man?
Peer:
There is no difference as far as I can see. Big trolls will roast and small trolls will scratch;-
the same with us if only they dared.
(Act 2)

Charlotte Frogner is an abhorrent creature as She in Green, and never has Peer´s line "Something unspeakably ugly" been truer. Frogner is capable of taking good care of and having lots of fun with this figure, and there is no doubt that some of the male members in the audience shudder at her apparition. Once She in Green has Peer in the hollow of her hand, they head towards the dank isolation inside the mountain, and she does not leave Peer alone for the rest of his trip.

Den grønkledde

No doubt Peer has the strength for many adventures, but he gets thrashed by the trolls. Photo: gundersenogmeg.no

In the role of Anitra, Charlotte Frogner flourishes once more. Anitra is a scantily clad gold-digger with an extensive ability to stroke Peer´s self-image until she achieves what she wants. Alas, Peer, your fortune was acquired via slave- and weapon trading, so in the name of morality: let it be. Solveig (Ina Kringlebotn) provides a contrast to the female characters of the rest of the play, who are of a more "fragile stock". Solveig is a Christian fountain of light without particular charm or passion, improbable, like most ideals.

 

Aase´s death is a liberating scene without any hint of the sorrowful ´pieta´ we often see in other productions of Peer Gynt. At Gålå, Peer rides his mother to her death, and as in the first scene, it is difficult to know who enjoys the game the most. In any case, once more Peer gets through an uneasy situation with his confident "Now we will talk together, but only about this and that". Storhøi poises his performance on the incredible wit of the text while the action and the mood shifts creep forwards towards the sunset.

 

The production is a collaborative effort by everyone involved, and especially Stein Grønli as the Button Moulder is an impressive character, creepy but powerful, he holds his empty ladle ready to recast everyone who has lived a bit "so-so". Rune Reksten´s Begriffenfeldt is full of wild energy and is a priceless apparition, and he is also incredibly funny as the Dovre King ("Oh, I´ve come down in the world -!"). As The Thin One in Act 5, Reksten brings a gloomy mood of madness and degradation to the idyll surrounding the audience.

Peer Gynt

"Back and forth will lead you nowhere; - in and out won´t get you there." Photo: Ibsen.net


The production was a treat with choir and full orchestra, and many extras and smaller parts contribute to a solid performance. But it is also a coarse-meshed version, and you have to wonder why the giddy adventurer doesn´t learn his lesson already in the third act; it must be pretty exhausting to find the energy to sing "Rai Rai"* and dance with Anitra after he has been thrashed by the wedding guests, the trolls and the Boyg. The onion scene (Act 5) is nothing but sinister, full of fog, dark shadows and the old Peer with little more than a stick to support himself with. It is Peer himself who says "Now I want to peel you, my dear Peer" - and that´s a pretty dark image of an ageing man.

I miss a grasp on Peer´s all-encompassing roller-coaster trip. But there isn´t much moral philosophy in lines of his such as - "I dug for gold, and lost what I found; - fate and I are not on good  terms"; and Ibsen himself has not given many hints either, as in this sigh from the heart in a letter from 1868: "If the Norwegians of today, as seems to be the case, recognise themselves in Peer Gynt´s Character, it will have to be the good people´s own business." It doesn´t help much, but thanks for the tip, Ibsen!

- Yes, "Peer Gynt" is splendid, Ibsen: If only Norwegians can see how good it is!!
(Letter from Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, November 1867)

Peer Gynt has finished at Gålå for this year, but will be played at Fornebu between 31st August - 2nd September, in a somewhat a bit more urbanised version.
The production is registered in Ibsen.net’s repertoire database here.
Read Professor Vigdis Ystad’s in-depth article about Peer Gynt here.

*"Rai Rai" is the refrain of a party song from the valleys and has become synonymous with drunken partying.

Translated from Norwegian by May-Brit Akerholt.