Dionne Christian is the NZ Herald’s arts and books editor

All the world's a stage for peerless hero

Eli Kent has put his spin on Ibsen's Peer Gynt.
Eli Kent has put his spin on Ibsen's Peer Gynt.

It's a wonder Colin McColl, artistic director of Auckland Theatre Company, likes the plays of Henrik Ibsen at all.

McColl remembers seeing "stodgy" productions of the Norwegian's plays and one of his first professional roles was in a fairly conventional retelling of 1891's Ghosts. He almost shudders at the memory.

If these had been his only brushes with Ibsen, he might have been tempted to leave him in the 19th century. Then, sometime in the mid-1980s, McColl was one of 25 theatre-makers from around the world invited and hosted by the US State Department for a three-week tour of its theatres.

There followed the revelation: a production of The Wild Duck by Washington DC's Arena Stage Company revealed new ways of looking at and staging Ibsen's many plays. Now ask what Ibsen means to him and McColl simply says: "He speaks to me."

Fast-forward to the here and now and another young theatre-maker is seeing Ibsen as he's never seen him before. When ATC sought something big to keep playwright Eli Kent busy, McColl suggested a contemporary retelling of Peer Gynt.

"What's to be gained today by doing Ibsen as written? It has to be contemporary and I wanted Eli's work to be a response to the play," he says. "It happens all the time in the visual arts, where artists are always referencing the past in new ways, but it's not done as often in theatre. Why? I like to find opportunities where we can do it and why not?"

Kent's not too shy to admit he didn't really know much about Ibsen, who was at his most prolific in the mid-to-late 1800s.

"I'd always loved what I'd seen of Ibsen, like A Doll's House; I had no idea about Peer Gynt but when I read it, it invited so much," he says. "Peer seems to be almost aware that he's in a play; it's very self-referential."

It's a wild ride where the titular character, a bad boy with big dreams and a lust for life and women, reluctantly embarks on a journey of self-discovery. Banished for seducing a bride on her wedding day, he wanders the world looking for love! Fame! Fortune! Or is he?

McColl and Kent see it as a critique of self-obsession and what better time to pick over that than in the social media age where it's perfectly acceptable to be obsessed with yourself? But McColl - not a social media user because he can never remember his passwords - has a slightly different take on what drives that apparent self-obsession.

"Is it, in fact, insecurity? Is it more about finding yourself?"

Angst was Kent's starting point for his reworking. Given he's 29, he's meant to be an archetypal millennial fiend on social media but says he doesn't really do social media because he's self-conscious about posting.

"I find it very hard to present any sense of myself online because as soon as I think of anything to post, I start questioning my motives, why I want to say what I'm thinking of saying and how it might be read. It just becomes confusing."

But when he looked for a way to recycle Peer Gynt, he didn't hesitate to use his own experiences. Alongside the charismatic anti-hero Peer, there's a character called Eli Kent who converses with his mum, battles with writer's block and muses on the challenges of restaging Ibsen in 2017.

"My work is always autobiographical in some sense and it fits very well with this because it's a play about egotism. The idea of trying to adapt Ibsen - one of the great dramatists - is very egotistical in itself."

Having spent months with Ibsen and Peer Gynt, how does Kent view it now?

He's surprised about how something "so old" can remain relevant; delighted to find some of it reminds him of the likes of TV's South Park because it is self-referential and funny, thrilled at the beauty of the language of the original writing but still pondering the big questions raised. "It's asking what does it mean to be human and what's the right way to live your life? Is there a right way?"

What: Auckland Arts Festival - Peer Gynt [recycled]
Where and when: ASB Waterfront Theatre, March 7-18

- NZ Herald

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