Peer Gynt

adapted by Errol Durbach

November 17 to 27 at UBC's BC TEL Studio Theatre

by Ruth Baldwin and Jane Penistan

Theatre at UBC's production of Errol Durbach's new adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt is an innovative tour de force. In the program notes, Durbach says that in translating the play, he had been guided by José Ortega y Gasset's theoretical premise that "translation is not a duplicate of the original text. . . . but a path toward the work." In laying that path, Durbach has created (we use the word "created" rather than the word "produced" quite consciously) a translation which "interpolates some material which . . . is in keeping with the spirit if not the letter of Ibsen's complex ideas about identity, reality, and the nature of theatre itself."

The result is an adaptation which is faithful to Ibsen yet incorporates modern idiom, contemporary witticisms, local humour, and Ibsen's lovely Norwegian songs, many of which are rendered in the beautiful voice of Nicole Braber, who plays Peer's faithful lover, Solveig. Durbach has also retained Ibsen's rhyming couplets, to witty, poignant, and profound effect, by turns. Hilariously, for example, the truly repulsive Troll King informs the old and young Peer, who appear together on stage, that he is off to Ottawa "to tutor Preston, John, and Joe, to teach them everything I know." In contrast, the pathos of the grave scene moved us close to tears.

Theatre at UBC has made ingenious use of the technology available in the BC Tel Studio. Although a little fussy at times, the spare set -- the frame of a roof to suggest a dwelling, for example -- enhanced the notion of Peer as everyman in every time. The storm at sea was very effectively portrayed by the use of a huge billowing parachute and a small boat frame which was let down from above. The direction was slick and the scene changes effected well.

Alison Green's costumes are wonderful, especially those of the trolls who are fascinatingly repellant. Cathy Burnett's choreography is simple but very effective, and the symmetry between the dance and the rest of the play is smoothly achieved by the constantly changing geometric shapes that the actors form as they move on the stage. Yet there is no sense of stiffness at all -- just an underlying emphasis on the way in which the lives of individuals intertwined and are shaped one by another.

As Button Moulder, Errol Durbach puts on his usual fine performance. It is an added fascination, however, to have the adapter also a performer in the play. One remembers that Shakespeare is said to have acted in his own plays. Both the young and old Peers put on excellent performances, interacting and reacting to each other's presence with a clear understanding of Ibsen's intent.

Solveig's goodness and innocence is well portrayed by Nicole Braber. While it is difficult for a woman as young as Trina McClure to play an elderly woman, her effort is not without skill. As the play settles into its run, it seemed likely, judging from her first night performance, that McClure will perfect the gestures and gait that will make her a more convincing elderly woman.

The trolls and the cowgirls were very well portrayed, and Joseph Reynolds as the Troll King was a huge success. Indeed, there were few weak portrayals in the production, and several of the small cameo parts were particularly well done - Eva Lau as the Strange Passenger was eerily effective, for example.

This is a "must see" production. What better recommendation can we give than to say that we both intend to go again before the run ends!