Peer Gynt (Recycled)–Auckland 2017
Two days ago, I saw an amazing play by a talented young New Zealand playwright, Eli Kent. It was called Peer Gynt (Recycled).
I make it a habit of not researching plays before I see them because I like to be surprised, and anyway, it would have been pretty hard in this case because the play is new. I had a vague familiarity with the Peer Gynt story by Henrik Ibsen and remember hearing the music by Grieg. So I figured the play was going to be a modernized version of Ibsen.
The first hint that we were in for something different came when we parked the car and the attendant told us that he had seen a rehearsal and “it’s not for everyone.” That was a pretty promising endorsement.
He wasn’t wrong. The theatre was noticeably emptier when the curtain came up for the second act. The triggering mechanism for the exodus may have been the closing scene of the first act in which the playwright, who is a major character in the play, is stripped and secured to a table by a group of enraged Ibsen academics for desecrating the master’s work. The first act closes with the academics performing an impromptu caesarian on the playwright and the result is a mature but baby-sized Henrik Ibsen (complete with the cool facial hair) who, with the academics, embarks on an orgy of cannibalism.
(Incidentally, the academics aren’t the only outraged people in the play. In the second act, a full grown Henrik Ibsen himself appears and confronts the playwright and accuses him of “shitting on my work.” The playwright says he has done nothing of the sort, “I’ll show you what shitting on your work looks like,” he says as he drops his pants, moons the audience, and squats over a copy of the original play).
If all of this sounds like gratuitous shock theatre, I’ve given you the wrong idea. I thought it was one of the most creative, innovative, timely and challenging plays I’ve seen in a long time and my wife and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It had a really important message and spent three plus hours reiterating it to make sure you got it.
I did my research after the fact and found out that although today the original Peer Gynt is considered pretty much a classic and national treasure, original audiences were almost as baffled as we were. The play is considered to be one of the first examples of Modernism and surrealism in theatre and Ibsen ignored a lot of conventions, like limitations of space and time and chronology.
Not only that, and this is what made Peer Gynt (Recycled) so interesting to me, is that the original Peer Gynt character is what we would call a narcissist today and the original play was considered to be, in part, a satire on that kind of behavior.
Eli Kent has “recycled” the story into the 21st century and created a thought provoking critique of how we approach life today. In some respects, there are two plays in one. One, the weird one, is about Peer Gynt and his adventures, each of which is a surrealistic mini story on self-importance and ego. In one scene, the mature Peer is a successful porn producer and is meeting with his publicist and biographers in a Dubai penthouse. A disgruntled former employee, who is now, somehow appropriately, a Starbucks employee, bursts in and holds them at gunpoint. Peer lives, of course, but when she kills everyone else Peer laments, “You can’t kill him, he was going to write my biography.”
Lack of empathy and egotism show up everywhere. After a shipwreck, Peer is floating on a door and a famous Hollywood director, clutching an Oscar, demands to be saved because “I’m James Fucking Cameron.”
But the real story to me was the one involving the character of the playwright. He’s a twenty something loser who has decided to write the play in his own image and likeness. He has no frame of reference beyond himself. In other words, he’s a modern Peer Gynt. Any reference to classical literature or history is mediated through himself and the play is only important in terms of how he sees it and how he feels about it. He spends a lot of time talking to—make that lecturing—the audience about his deep ideas.
We learn that he is so addicted to internet porn that he can’t function normally and he tries to get an old girlfriend to help him with the play only if she agrees not to take any credit. He also spends a lot of time talking about the play to his mother who has a hard time figuring out what’s going on. Like Peer Gynt, he’s a classic narcissist with no empathy for anyone, a huge ego and an exaggerated sense of his importance and talent.
Near the end of the play, Peer and the playwright, Eli, become essentially the same person and Eli is forced, on pain of death, to prove that he is special. He goes in search of some of the characters Peer has met during the play but no one can find anything special about him.
Throughout the play there have been numerous references to getting to the heart of something by “peeling the layers of the onion.” Ibsen appears and gives Eli an onion to peel and when he does it, there is nothing inside. Eli can’t accept that he’s just some guy rather than the special creation he has come to consider himself. He’s also desperate to find a way to end the play in a meaningful way and he and his mother start to read from the original to get some ideas. The play ends with Eli asking his mother (appropriately because she is complicit in having made him the narcissistic millennial that he is) “If we all believe in the lie together, isn’t that as good as the truth?”
Sort of a timely warning for everyone around the world, isn’t it?