Only a fool or a master should dare to do a play like “Peer Gynt.” With its nearly forty scenes in five acts, and sequences demanding horses racing across deserts, a rescue at sea and a journey which moves from the mountains of Scandinavia to the pyramids of Egypt to a nether world troll kingdom, Ibsen’s fantastic saga presents daunting challenges. The Burgtheater offers all of “Peer Gynt” in a five-hour marathon.
And at the helm are not one, but rather two masters: director Claus Peymann and designer Achim Freyer.
Peer (Ulrich Muhe) proves to be a thoroughly modern amoral character. The play begins with his mother Aase (Bibiana Zeller standing in for the injured Annemarie Duringer) calling him a liar. From there Peer goes on to abandon two women, father a deformed half-wit son by a troll princess (Julia Weininger), and push a drowning man from a lifeboat.
A braggart and egotist, he earns the scorn of others with whom he comes into contact around the world and is himself deserted, robbed and held in an insane asylum where he witnesses two grisly suicides. Only his “beautiful and clear” love Solvejg (Regina Fritsch) waits with unswerving belief in Peer.
Freyer’s tabula rasa set invites great splashes of color. The naked stage is horizontally divided so that individual segments can be raised or lowered to serve as valley, mountain or sea, allowing shipwrecked swimmers or galloping horse to move easily in the lowered channels.
The resulting production is both painterly and cinematic.
Freyer begins painting sparingly on his stretched, white canvas set. Carrying a bundle of twigs, Peer and Aase drift across the snowy expanse.
From modulated neutral tones of Aase and Solvejg’s family, he adds bits of pink to the Nordic villagers, then moves to a range of earthy greens for the troll world, orange-reds of a Turkish harem, wax bean yellow of an asylum, midnight blue of the ocean voyage, and mourning black of a funeral party as Peer , leaning on a tree-branch cane, eventually comes to the end of his wanderings.
The sparse pieces of scenery are mostly miniature white cutouts of a childlike nature. Peer’s descent into the troll world is preceded by his crashing into the set’s “picture frame” wall, and he falls down tothe accompaniment of twittering birds.
The trolls, with their snouts and curly pink tails, are recognizably the same actors as were Peer’s village neighbors, and they later reappear en masse to serve as asylum inmates.
Peer presents a casting dilemma. He ages from youth to old man and is almost constantly on stage, yet is far from a heroic lead. Peymann avoids the temptation to cast two Peers and has chosen instead one very good but not quite superlative actor.
As a result, Peer stays somewhere in a middle range, not quite green enough in youth and still too boyish in old age.
Peymann has a fondness for anachronistic touches, and with the exception of some cheap musical choices, he succeeds in unifying Ibsen’s unique episodic tale into a both vital and relevant adventure of a man in search of himself.