Feb 1, 2010

Susan Coyne: Her Own Peer

There are some plays I'm absolutely drawn to, Hamlet being a notable example. I love the haunted nature of the title character, the complicated nature of his relationships, and the ways he deals with (or avoids) various elements thrown up at him. Like Hamlet, Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt has a compelling main character and a complex set of relationships -but the big difference is the sprawling, massively ambitious storyline. Most people associate Ibsen with serious, hard-edged reality-based works like Hedda Gabler and The Master Builder. Yet before these works, Ibsen wrote his five-act play in verse, and, to quote one critic, "in deliberate, liberating disregard of the limitations that the conventional stagecraft of the 19th century imposed on drama." Wow. Ambitious? Yes. Brave? Yes. A little bit crazy? Perhaps.

Indeed, Peer Gynt has presented its fair share of challenges in live production; many versions are long, or else condensed so thoroughly that they risk losing their original Norwegian folk flavour. Ingmar Bergman helmed a five-hour version in 1957 (and didn't use the famous Grieg music named after the work), while Christopher Plummer presented a radically-reduced concert version in 1993 (and did use the Grieg music, natch). There's a myriad of reasons the work is so challenging: numerous location chances, an enormous cast of characters, and fantastical elements that reference fairy tales, religion, and the nature of time itself. Like I wrote, Peer Gynt was, and remains, ambitious, brave, and a little bit crazy.

So it was with much intrigue that I recently looked over a press release for a new, streamlined production of the work, staged by The Thistle Project; adapted for two actors by director Erika Batdorf and the company, the production features playwright, actor, and author Susan Coyne alongside Thistle's co-founder Matthew Romantini. I wanted to find out Coyne's ideas about this unique work, perhaps in the hope that she'd be able to furnish me with a little more clarity in trying to understand the nature of Peer. I soon learned she brings not only an actor's dedication and commitment to the role, but a writer's intuitive understanding of the language, and how it informs the visual elements within the work. The Thistle Project's production of Peer Gynt promises to be one of the most memorable experiences of the Toronto theatre season this year.

How do you approach the role? You're playing what some might characterize as a "typically male" role. What is it about Ibsen's hero that ultimately renders him genderless?

The character is very male in the traditional sense and we aren't changing that. However, I"m not playing him in drag. I like to think it's similar to what actresses quite often did in the nineteenth century- playing the "breeches part" without having to explain why. The play reveals new facets when you can get away from some of the off-putting surface elements of Ibsen's original script (which was probably not written to be performed at first)- like the character of Solveig, who seems a kind of caricature on the page. (She is) the maiden pure who waits her whole life in a castle tower for her hero to return to her. What attracts me to Peer is his energy and his imagination. He's a dreamer and a doer, though he lacks the capacity to look at himself and his actions.

By producing it in a church, there is a lot of spiritual background brought in. Intentional?

We wanted to do the play in a non-traditional space. Again, this is a way of looking the play from another angle. The play has a very spiritual core and we wanted a space that would provide it with a kind of resonance- as it happens we found one in the Church of the Holy Trinity, which is a beautiful space with a very progressive history and deep roots in the downtown community where it sits.

How does the movement-based, experiential nature of the piece complement Ibsen's writing?

Peer Gynt is very unlike the plays by Ibsen that most of us are familiar with: A Doll's House, Hedda Gabbler, Ghosts. It is a kind of folk tale, very earthy and wildly inventive and mixing all kinds of styles of theatre. So we are doing the play with only two actors, me and the brilliant Matthew Romantini, who plays every other character.

How much of your own writing background helped in the streamlining of the work?

Erika Batdorf is the real force behind this adaptation, which involves cutting a play down from about four hours to something like ninety minutes. She knows the play intimately, and has been involved with several productions, and lived with it inside her for many years. The rest of us have had a hand in reworking bits and pieces as we've found some stumbling blocks in the text.

What does Peer Gynt have to say to us in the 21st century?

First of all it's a very entertaining story, and surprisingly funny. It is the story of Everyman's journey through life- the struggle between our flawed, selfish, human desires and the part of us that might be called our higher self- the self we seldom allow to have the upper hand. I think it's an old, old tale, and one that never goes out of style.

Peer Gynt runs to February 21st at Toronto's Church of the Holy Trinity. More information is at the Facebook Event Page.

Photos by Lindsay Anne Black

12 comments:

Sterling Lynch said...

I'm not sure why contemporary theatre practitioners are attracted to Peer Gynt.

Ibsen didn't intend for it to be staged, so why should we bother today?

And it's very much a play of its time: sexist, racist, colonialist.

I expect this condensed version will rightly sanitize these elements or problematize them but why bother? Moreover, can we even call a 90 min version of a 4 hour play the same play? They aren't really performing Peer Gynt -- their riffing off on it.

So, from my perspective, when all is said and done, instead of reworking a 19th century Norwegian play, why not write a new Canadian play, why not create our own contemporary Canadian hero, why not re-imagine our world now?

Not only would these practitioners have a chance of making a lasting contribution to our artistic and cultural heritage, my best guess is our audiences would enjoy it a lot more.

Norwegians love Peer Gynt, despite all its problems, because it is their play. Isn't it time we try to write our own play. Shouldn't we at least try?

Ruano said...

Sounds like you've set your own task, Sterling!

Christine said...

Hi Sterling,

I am the other artistic co-director of The Thistle Project, and the producer of this Peer Gynt. Your questions about why we're doing this are totally valid, and ones that were brought up over and over again throughout the entire development process.

I completely agree with you that as theatre artists in this country we need to be telling Canadian stories and contributing new works to the canon, but I also believe that there is room for both. Classic texts become so for a reason, and why should Canadian audiences not be exposed to them just because they didn't come from here?

As a theatre-goer, I want to see it all. I want to see the new George F. Walker at Factory, and I want to see the weird, 90-minute "riff" on that sexist Norwegian thing that was never meant to be a play anyway. And if people don't want to see the latter for whatever reasons, they certainly don't have to. But for me, I'd rather have the choice.

Why not, right? This country needs more art, not less.

Sterling Lynch said...

Christine, thanks so much for your reply. I really appreciate it. Social media rocks!

I agree with you: more art is better than less art. And I will be the first to defend your right to choose to produce whatever art you choose to produce.

If I could, I'd come see the show because I'm very curious to see how you address the concerns I flag -- especially since it seems you are friendly to an open dialogue about the text and the questions it creates.

And that's just good for theatre. Period. So, in that very important sense, this production is already a success.

Perhaps, my first statement seemed rhetorical but it is genuine. Did your team ever settle on an answer to the question "Why Peer Gynt now?" There are many other plays in the canon from which to choose. Why this play now?

I'd love to hear any thoughts you have because it would be very helpful for my own thinking about the play and the question of whether or not to produce form the canon.

Christine said...

Hi again!

I think that what resonated for us was the timelessness of Peer's personal journey. It wasn't about our contemporary Canadian society reflecting a particular element of Ibsen's Norway or anything as grand as that. It was simply about this one guy making his way through the world, being confronted with obstacles and choosing to "go 'round" them instead of actually dealing with them.

The play, as you say, is full of lots of things that we didn't in any way want to advocate. Solveig wasting away in a mountain hut for 70 years waiting for a not very nice guy to come home, for example. We weren't interested in that. But we were interested in looking at all of the people Peer encounters (Solveig included) as different parts of the same being (and indeed they are all played by the same actor) - a being that pushes and provokes and challenges Peer to make choices, and to be a better, more accountable person. I think we all encounter those things in our lives - whether they are people or situations or events - that have the potential to really impact who we are as people, and present an incredible opportunity to change our lives and set us on a different path. And that can be really scary - the easy thing to do is run away. And that's what Peer does over and over and over again, right up until the end. It was a text that made us really closely examine our own personal choices and how they impact the course of the rest of our lives, and it's our hope that it might provoke audiences to do the same.

Plus we like trolls. :)

Sterling Lynch said...

Christine, thanks so much for your reply. It is insightful and will certainly inform my thoughts on this text in the future.

Best of luck with the production.

I too am a fan of trolls. :)

nadinethornhill said...

Great blog!

A discussion of Peer's troublesome elements, always seems to include the qualifier that Ibsen never intended for is script to be produced.

While that's an interesting fact in and of itself, I don't know that it's relevant in relation to the sexism/racism/colonialism Sterling refers to. From my perspective, the "icky stuff" in PG geographically is much more a product of Ibsen's place in time and space.

That having been said, I've never studied Peer in depth. I love to read your thoughts on the matter.

Dave said...

Thank to Sterling for pointing out this post. And asking some good questions.

I'm always interested in these things from a marketing standpoint. And I'm wondering what your approach has been and are you using this:

"It was simply about this one guy making his way through the world, being confronted with obstacles and choosing to "go 'round" them instead of actually dealing with them."

I'm not up on my Peer Gynt history but the above definitely gives me something to connect to as an audience member.

Best with the show,

Dave

Wayne C. said...

This blog post is certainly provoking an interesting discussion! Thank you for writing it. Peer Gynt is unquestionably a colonialist, sexist, racist text. It is also ridiculously long (as written).

I agree that this should not deter a company that wishes to perform it. it can certainly be performed either as a historical artifact (this is what Norwegian theatre looked like back then) or as a modern take that addresses or critiques the more ugly and problematic aspects of the play (and time period).

It sounds like you are doing the latter, which I think is great. I am all for using theatre to interrogate the cannon.

What I find really interesting is that there comes a point where (by cutting huge chunks of plot, dropping the poetry, music, translating the whole thing into 21st English) theatre practitioners are not longer presenting Ibsen but something new. Such a project does not seem to subscribe to cannonical (sp?) agenda but is instead a subversion of it. I really like the title of this post I think it is very appropriate. I'm also all for subversion. I hope you have a lot of success with the show.

I also share the sentiment of everyone so far. We must never lose focus of the importance of telling our own stories and celebrating the work of living playwrights.

Wouldn't it have been a shame if none of the Elizabethans saw Hamlet because all the theatre companies were busy putting on Oedipus Rex?

Catherine said...

What makes this production so unique, at least to me, is the fact that a woman is performing the title character. Now there's subversion, if ever I saw it.

Great discussion!

Dave said...

@Wayne C.

I love this:
"Wouldn't it have been a shame if none of the Elizabethans saw Hamlet because all the theatre companies were busy putting on Oedipus Rex?"

Christine said...

Whoa! Hi everybody!

[apologies in advance for my non-knowledge of hyperlinking...]

Dave: Our marketing budget was literally $0, so all we've really been able to do is talk about it through a variety of outlets (playanon included) and hope that others would talk about it too. Our pre-press intentionally ranged from the sophisticated (http://www.nowtoronto.com/stage/story.cfm?content=173411) to the ridiculous (http://praxistheatre.com/2010/01/horne-to-coyne-hows-playing-my-part-going-for-you/), but in every case we tried to keep the relevance of the piece rooted in the human, rather than the epic.

Wayne: The plot is still very much Ibsen's but you're right, an adaptation that cuts it down to 2 actors and 100 minutes has certainly taken some liberties. We didn't want to sterilize the elements of Ibsen's work that made us uncomfortable (and there were many), but we did need to take responsibility for the story we were telling, and the implications of the through-line we were choosing to follow.

Catherine: I know, right? And it's amazing to me how little attention that element has actually received. We thought for sure we'd be taken to task for it, but I think that with Matthew playing every other character (both male and female), the gender roles are all somehow quite neutralized. If Matthew were only playing female roles, for example, I think it would be something very different.