High in the Norwegian mountains is a legendary theatrical experience worth the journey
The curtain cannot rise because there is no curtain, no proscenium arch, nothing but grass and a beach flanked by two shaggy hillocks between us and Lake Gålåvatnet. We are gathered here in the Norwegian wilds outside Vinstra to go on a journey with a character called Peer Gynt.
On and off the page
Peer’s journey begins just down the hill. He’s a farmboy with a bad reputation and a penchant for tall tales. The well-known opening line of the play is from his mother, Åse, who yells, “Peer, du lyver!” (“you’re lying”). He proceeds to spin a wild tale about riding a reindeer, which riffs on Norwegian folktales, and like a folktale cannot possibly be believed.
So it figures that his travels would run him afoul of powerful trolls and powerful forces that would dog him to his dying day.
The character on Ibsen’s written page is an enigma. He is a liar, and he is a loser. A big-talking charlatan whose answer to the trouble he gets himself into is to run away. Yet he is also a lucky man, and one who might be a sympathetic or even tragic figure. I found I couldn’t get a grip on the guy on the page, so I was eager to see what version of the man would step onto the stage.
Mads Ousdal, in his last year as Peer, didn’t step so much as gallivant, bursting onto the grassy lakefront and even onto a bench-like barrier between the audience and the stage with gymnastic moves and pelvic gyrations, as the band played eerie strings. Throughout the show Peer veered from excitement to a few tender moments to the character’s dominant emotion, spittle-flecking rage.
No Norwegian? No problem
Of course, much of the blame for the spittle lies with Henrik Ibsen, who wrote Peer Gynt 150 years ago this year. The language of the play is complex and rhymes to the beat of a different drummer, and it is clearly more than a mouthful at times.
But fear not, English speakers. The festival provides brief introductions to the play in English and German, and also offers an audio guide in those languages. Rather than step on Ibsen’s language with a word-for-word translation, the guide simply gives intros at the beginning of each scene. A word of advice though: one does have to keep the device engaged. I confess I took it off at one point and became hopelessly unsynced from the audio summaries. Thank goodness I’d read the script!
A range of dates to celebrate
Norway’s most famous playwright was inspired, during his time in the Gudbrandsdal valley, by the tales of the real Per Gynt, who’d lived across the way from him some hundred years earlier. He was a liar too, but in a more gentle way—a spinner of tall tales who entertained his neighbors in a pre-television world so thoroughly that his legend persisted for generations.
The Peer Gynt Festival was first celebrated in Vinstra in 1928, the 100th year since Ibsen’s birth. The second festival was held four years later in 1932, 200 years after the birth of the historical Per Gynt. After a long pause, the festival started back up in 1976, 100 years after the play’s initial premier in Christiania (Oslo). In the early days, the festival was mostly just a party, an occasion for “moonshine and harmonica,” as one local resident put it. In 1989 the play was first performed on the shore of Gålåvatnet.
With so many historical events to mark, the festival can find a reason to make every year special, but they are determined to mark the play’s 150th birthday with the respect the occasion deserves.
The many incarnations of Peer
For the first 25 years of the festival, the play’s production remained largely unchanged. When attendance started to drop off in the early teens, they realized it was time for a change. There was nothing wrong with the original production, all those who’d seen it assured me. But like The Phantom of the Opera, there eventually comes a time when everyone who was going to attend has. What to do then?
The festival brought in a new Artistic Director, Erik Ulfsby, to remake the production. “Peer Gynt is like a big house with many doors,” he said. “I’ll do other doors than those done earlier.” The set was rebuilt, and the audience moved closer to the water. The music, partially from Grieg’s score, was modernized to de-romanticize Peer Gynt.
This is the play I saw. If Ulfsby’s goal was to make Peer’s journey more real, then he succeeded with flying colors. The reality of the play was one of my main takeaways. I’ve done a little work behind the scenes of plays in the U.S. and here safety is always a primary concern. So I was stunned to see actors doing things like waterskiing or hacking all the branches off a tree with an axe, let alone running and jumping about on rain-slick surfaces or jumping into lakes half naked. Yes, I was told, Mads had injured himself a couple of times. Never too severely.
A Peer for the future
2017 is another year of changes. Director Sigrid Strøm Reibo’s vision for the new production is to emphasize the long journey Peer undertakes. The title role will be split for the first time at Gålå, with father and son actors Jakob and Nils Ole Oftebro sharing the part. Though both are well-known actors in Norway, this will also mark the first time the two have been in a play together.
We will meet 25-year-old Peer in the 1960s and follow him until the present day. Details of the new production are of course as yet unknown, but we have also been promised a new approach to both the music and the musicians and “new tableaus and pictures that audience will not expect.”
Crazy as it sounds, I am seriously considering making another trip back to Lake Gålåvatnet to see how the interpretation of this timeless classic changes from year to year.
Notes on actually being there
The experience of Peer Gynt at Gålå is like if Broadway theatre and camping had a baby. High-quality performances in a rustic—yet hyggelig—setting.
My main words of advice are these: dress warmly. Wear all your layers. Yes, it’s August. No, it probably won’t be warm. Yes, it might rain, and no they won’t stop the show. For us it started to rain in Act I, and there was a mighty rustle as we in the audience all donned our ponchos. I had as much clothing on as I physically could, including a lot of borrowed items. If you won’t have anyone to borrow from, pack well.
Also, make a night of it! The performance itself is one thing, but there’s also dinner to be had before the show, in big heated tents strewn with cozy sheepskins. There are picnic benches outside if the weather permits. Bringing in outside food or beverage did not seem to be counter indicated, so I recommend it. At the intermission, get some coffee and a pastry. At the end of the night, if you’re up for it, hit up “Varm mat og etterprat,” a discussion with people involved in the play that also comes with soup, back in the tents.
But wait, there’s more!
The play runs for two weekends, with at least seven performances (and quite probably more added as these sell out). But you don’t want to miss the one-time-only “mountain concert” on the final Sunday. High atop another mountain you can nestle into the heather and relax with the view and incredible choral and instrumental music. For me this was a magical day—the only really sunny and almost warm day of my week in Norway. Your mileage may vary, of course.
This event cannot sell out, as I am assured that the mountain can handle it. Bring a picnic blanket and your matpakke or buy snacks and beverages from the many stands that pop up along the way, or have lunch at the charming Hotel Rondablikk and enjoy a hike around the area.
For more info on visiting the Peer Gynt Festival or to buy tickets, visit peergynt.no.
This article originally appeared in the Jan. 27, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.