In Pursuit of Peer Gynt by Robert Ferguson

Robert Ferguson

In Pursuit of Peer Gynt


We were having the bathroom done in our flat in Oslo and wouldn’t be able to live there for most of July and the first week of August, so when Sverre Mørkhagen asked if I would share the guiding duties at the annual Peer Gynt Festival in Rondane in the first week of August, it suited us very well. Nina could stay on at the mountain cabin in Numedal with the dog while I was away. Sverre had been doing the guiding alone for the last twenty years. All it involved was giving a talk about the play on the coach taking guests from the hotel at Venabu to the open-air theatre on the shores of Gålåvatnet. Sverre had already written a book about Peer Gynt and its folklore roots; now he was writing a full-length biography of Ibsen and felt he needed more time to work on it.

As part of the festival, which includes concerts, literary seminars, lectures and fringe drama productions, Ibsen’s play has been performed, rain or shine, at Gålåvatnet each summer since 1989, with a new production every three years. Over twenty thousand Norwegians annually make their way to this remote and beautiful location to reacquaint themselves with the play’s riches. Throughout the 19th century, most of the literature and art in Norway was dedicated, consciously or unconsciously, to the creation of a Norwegian national identity, something that had been lost to the country over the six centuries it spent as a colony first of Denmark and then of Sweden. Henrik Ibsen, Edvard Grieg, Knut Hamsun and Edvard Munch were among the extraordinary talents that arose as part of this process. The declaration of independence from Sweden in 1905 was a mark of the country’s success in creating a national identity that was neither distilled Danish nor yet palely Swedish but uniquely Norwegian.

Ibsen’s Peer Gynt was written in 1867 as a verse drama to be read; in 1876 it was adapted for the stage, with music by Edvard Grieg. It gave Norwegians a national epic with which to back their claim for independence. A hundred and fifty years on, its status remains undiminished. Stroll down Karl Johans Gate in central Oslo from the National Theatre to the Grand Hotel and you will find quotations from it, as well as the rest of Ibsen’s twenty-five plays, etched into the paving stones. Ibsen enriched the Norwegian language in much the same way Shakespeare did English.

The premiere was on Friday. I had decided to talk about some of the more unusual cultural manifestations of Peer Gynt, and as the coach made its way along the twisting mountain lanes on the forty-minute drive to Gålåvatnet, I told the passengers how Charlton Heston had made his screen debut aged eighteen in David Bradley’s 1941 film adaptation, anachronistically made in black and white and silent, save for Grieg’s music; how back in 1960 the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation had refused to play Duke Ellington’s arrangements of Grieg’s Peer Gynt suites on the grounds that it was ‘disrespectful’ towards Grieg. And did anyone know that the Byrds’ 1970 hit ‘Chestnut Mare’ was an adaptation of Peer’s thrilling tale of his leap from Besseggen ridge on the back of a deer, replacing it with a horse? As an afterthought I warned the passengers not to be too disappointed if their favourite line or scene from the play was missing. Theatre directors, I said, tend to regard even the greatest of plays as merely tentative suggestions from the dramatist, and take things from there. We must keep an open mind and be ready to be surprised.

Ringed by tall mountains, the Gålåvatnet setting is astonishingly beautiful. The audience sits in a horseshoe layout facing the southern end of the lake, with the acting taking place on a small arc of beach. This was the fourth new production I had seen, including one the previous year in which the rain had lashed down with biblical fury throughout the evening. The surprise this year was that the stage itself had been deliberately flooded, so the whole play was performed with the actors wading about ankle deep in water. At times, when the wind allowed it, the effect was dreamlike, as though they were moving about on the surface of the water. I was curious to know why this had been done and half expected the water to be gone after the interval. But it was still there as the second half began. The sun had set behind the mountains during the interval, and as people busied themselves pulling on quilted jackets, gloves and woollen hats, a young man entered in full evening dress, sat down at a baby grand and played Khachachurian’s ‘Sabre Dance’ as he floated slowly across the stage, drawn by underwater wires.

Our Peer that evening was surprisingly hard to like. The director had removed most of the sly charm Ibsen had provided him with so that we might more easily forgive him his sins. Peer’s passing reference to his time as a slave-trader was rendered visually explicit by the introduction of an African character. During the desert scene with Anitra the Arab girl, this character reappeared wielding a Kalashnikov with which he and Anitra robbed Peer of his worldly goods before sauntering off arm-in-arm, singing ‘Sometimes I feel like a motherless child’. I was left reflecting glumly on the fact that our beloved Peer was actually a racist sociopath. The adaptation might have been interesting at an agitprop Oslo theatre like the Black Box, but Gålåvatnet audiences consist mostly of families and elderly couples, and the atmosphere afterwards on the coach back to the hotel was subdued.

There wasn’t much for a guide to do while waiting for the tickets to be handed out at four o’clock in the afternoon each day. Or rather there was – you could rent a bike, hire a fjord horse, walk in the mountains, swim in the nearby lake – but none of it seemed very tempting for someone who, like me, was alone. The bedrooms were austere and comfortable, but without television and radio they weren’t designed for lingering. Standing at the window after breakfast the next day, I watched a young woman leading a horse along by the bridle. A tiny girl in a brown helmet held on tightly to the reins as she wobbled about in the saddle. Later, browsing upstairs in the hotel library, I came across a copy of Norway: Portrait of a Nation, a cultural panorama published in 2004 to celebrate the centenary of Norway’s independence. I had contributed translations of poems by forty-seven different poets to this volume, from the bound rhymes of the eight verses of Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson’s ‘Ja, vi elsker’ – the Norwegian national anthem – to the formless brevities of Tor Ulven and Lars Saabye Christensen. It was probably the most difficult translation job I had ever done. Bjørnson’s iron-clad rhymes cost me days of work, Ulven’s half-sentences ten minutes. Ulven took his own life in 1995 and the poems now read like draft suicide notes. There were two or three shelves of books in Dutch and German but less than a dozen works in English. I slipped an old Hammond Innes paperback into my pocket for later.

After breakfast on the third day, Lars, who owns the hotel, took me out for a drive in his old Passat. Pausing before turning on the ignition, he handed me a thin silver chain with a tube dangling from it and told me it was a microphone. Put this round your neck, he said. I had all along been expecting some form of instruction on how much of a guide to be. For a moment I thought this might be my lesson, but it wasn’t. Lars informed me that he was deaf in his right ear but that if I spoke directly into the microphone he would be able to hear me well enough.

We set off north up the Fv 27 and Lars began talking about the Peer Gynt Festival. Grieg’s music every year until 2013. Six Peers so far, including Svein Sturla Hungnes, who played the role from 1995 to 2007. That little mountain chapel there in mottled stone and wood with the turf roof is from 1979. As a sort of courtesy, I occasionally responded to these statements. Each time I did so Lars looked at me in great surprise and barked, ‘Hva?’ Finally I turned to him, ignoring the microphone, and asked in a loud voice, ‘Can’t you hear anything I say at all?’ ‘You speak too fast,’ he replied. ‘Speak more slowly. Speak into the microphone.’ I repeated the question into the microphone. It fell off. I fastened it back on and again it fell off. ‘It’s old,’ he said. ‘I should have got a newer one. Don’t bother with it.’ We drove on and he resumed his running commentary on the landscape we were passing through, and in a moment of insight I realised what the problem was. Lars had been in guiding mode. Lars was the guide and I was his audience, and I had kept on interrupting him.

We stopped at Sohlbergplassen by Lake Atnsjøen, from where the landscape of Harald Sohlberg’s Winter Night in Rondane was thrillingly recognisable despite the bright sunlight and the absence of snow. A little further on we pulled in again and Lars took me on a short walk through the Myldingi nature reserve. This was all Peer Gynt country, so it was no surprise when we shortly came upon a column of slabs, flagstones and small boulders standing about shoulder high, with a plaque mounted on the side announcing that at this very spot Peer Gynt had encountered the Bøyg. Heading back towards the car, Lars said that this had originally stood over on the other side of the footbridge but that the location had turned out to be too far from the car park, so they had moved it.

Our final stop on the way back to Venabu was at Borgen, the tiny cabin in which Knut Hamsun had lived in 1908 while writing A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings. As I stared in through the window I couldn’t help thinking of the growth in Hamsun tourism since I came here to live back in 1983, when not even a farm track could be named after him. Now lovers of Hunger, Mysteries and Hamsun’s other great novels could rent this cabin for eight hundred kroner a night and pray that some of his genius, and none of his politics, might rub off on them while they slept.

On Tuesday morning Lars drove me to the station to catch the train home. Two sisters from the hotel catching the same train came with us. As the road dropped sharply down from Venabu, nine hundred metres above sea level, one of the sisters in the back seat asked about a group of tall, Giacometti-thin figures standing in a cluster in a field to our right – was that Gitte Dæhlin’s installation Flokk she’d read about? Lars, who had gone into guiding mode again and had been speaking of the coming of the railway to Ringebu, paused briefly and then, taking a wild guess that the question had been about his collection of paintings at Venabu, announced that there were a hundred and forty-five of them altogether, mostly landscapes from Gudbrandsdalen. Half turning his head, he added, with a huge smile, ‘I didn’t hear what you said but I’m answering anyway.’

Lars Mytting’s most recent novel Søsterklokkene (‘The Sister Bells’), based on a local legend concerning a gift of bells made to Ringebu stave church by two sisters in the 18th century, had reignited interest in this remarkable building, and the sisters in the back seat were keen to see it before departing. We got there fifteen minutes before our train was due and hurried to the church door. It is one of the oldest of these hooded and almost Gothic-looking constructions which the first Norwegian Christians built for themselves following the arrival of Christianity in the country in about the year 1000. A coachload of Polish tourists were occupying the pews, and I sat at the end of one and listened as a Norwegian guide, speaking in English, related the history of the church. Her words were then translated by the Polish guide, a well-groomed young man whose clean white shirt and pressed black trousers aroused an unexpected sense of professional curiosity in me, and made me realise how little like a proper guide I must have seemed to my Peer Gynt passengers.

On the platform, I said goodbye to Lars and promised I’d be back next year. As the train pulled out the sisters headed off towards the rear, looking for vacant seats and I made my way forward to a pre-booked window seat, my back to the direction of travel, the better to ponder Kierkegaard’s maxim that life can only be understood looking backwards but must be lived forwards, and whether Lars’s refusal to wear a hearing aid was an act of vanity or a stroke of existential genius.  

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