There is no way in hell to stage “Peer Gynt” in a way that would make Ibsen’s monumental epic drama accessible to anyone who didn’t grow up on the fabulous legend of this Norwegian folk hero. But there is a way to stage it beautifully, and that Robert Wilson does, in a sumptuous four-hour banquet of music, dance, theater and spectacle that is absolutely ravishing. That it is also utterly exhausting should not deter anyone who sat enthralled through 11 hours of “Einstein on the Beach” at BAM, or the entire “Ring” cycle in Zurich.
As Norwegian legend has it, Peer Gynt was the gifted son of a drunken father and an impoverished mother who can’t be tied down to the life of a peasant because “he is meant for greatness.” And greatness he achieves, over a hell-raising lifetime of adventure as, among other things, a religious prophet, a Bedouin chieftain, a profiteering merchant and the resident “Emperor” of a madhouse.
In Ibsen’s verse drama, the wanton cruelty of Peer’s egocentric exploits are justifiable because, as a folk hero, his job is to define the national identity of his people. In fact, the play’s most indelible image is of Peer sitting alone at the end of his journey, peeling an onion that he likens to himself, looking for the core of identity that has eluded him all his life — but finding nothing more than one more superficial layer of skin.
In Wilson’s treatment, the journey itself is the core of the hero. And while lip service is paid to the universal quest for identity, by the time the worn-out hero returns home to peel that iconic onion, the director has pretty much run out of brilliant staging ideas.
But before the letdown of the later scenes, Wilson manages to fill the huge stage of the BAM Opera House with feats of stagecraft astonishing for both their beauty and originality.
Pacing himself to the haunting music of Michael Galasso, Wilson rolls out scene after scene against a giant backdrop that pulses with color. As Peer confronts the trolls, wizards and other fabulous creatures that inhabit his magical world, painterly projections splash across the screen, changing the mood as they shift the locale from forest to desert to sea.
Silhouetted against this eerie landscape in their gorgeously sculpted costumes and white-out makeup, the actors look like demented puppets who have chewed through their strings. Their stylized movement is equally extraordinary, a combination of dance, mime and robotic gesture that takes the characters well beyond the realm of realism.
For once, Wilson has come up with a verbal idiom to match his visual brilliance. Working with classically trained actors from the National Theater of Bergen and the Norwegian Theater of Oslo, the director has heightened the foreignness of their native Norwegian language by drawing out the vowel sounds into an otherworldly dialect that’s downright eerie.
Even under these restrictions, the thesps are mesmerizing. Henrik Rafaelsen, as the young Peer, has the fluid moves of a trained dancer. Wenche Medboe, a positive fright in her early scenes as Peer’s mother, Ase, plays a beatific death scene that is the most realistic and moving moment in a production of countless moments worthy of recall. And Kjersti Sandal, as Peer’s beloved Solveig, has the voice of a lark.
One does wonder, though, what Ibsen would make of it all.