The 19th century Norwegian playwright, Henrik Ibsen, is best known for the naturalistic dialogue and depth of character in such stage classics as Hedda Gabler, An Enemy of the People, The Wild Duck and A Doll’s House.
Less well-known is his 1867 fantasy, Peer Gynt, which wasn’t written as a play, but as an epic poem in rhyming couplets.
Ironically, more people likely associate the story of Peer Gynt less with Ibsen than with the musical suite his countryman, Edvard Grieg, wrote as an incidental score for the first production of the tale.
Indeed, when Anton Solomon, the founder and artistic director of Moving Parts Theatre, mentioned his plans to stage Peer Gynt, the reaction of most people was to hum a few bars of Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King”.
That and other pieces in Grieg’s suite, such as “Morning Mood”, “Solveig’s Song” and “The Death of Åse” are much better known than the original story, Solomon admits.
“If you don’t know them by name, you’ve heard the melodies, and you’ve almost certainly seen them used in animation and stuff like that, because they’re really popular, grab-onto-you tunes.”
By mounting Ibsen’s challenging tale, using 15 actors in 70 different masks, Solomon hopes his developmental company’s production will help expand awareness beyond Grieg’s familiar score.
“We’ll probably use it for pre-show music, just to get it out of everybody’s system, but we’re creating our own sound for this one.”
There’s a practical reason, Solomon explains.
The musical score – performed live by an orchestra to highlight the drama, much as piano players would later accompany silent films – was paced for Ibsen’s original, lengthy work in Norwegian, not English.
What Whitehorse audiences will see and hear starting this week is a much shorter English-language version that Solomon “cobbled together” from 12 or 13 different translations.
“Once you translate poetry out of its native language, it has much less impact,” he explains.
“I didn’t find a translation that had consistent choices where the translator either wanted to adhere to the meaning of the line or to the poetics.”
If all this seems like heady stuff, it’s consistent with Solomon’s aim in establishing Moving Parts 11 years ago – as a way to help local actors develop a broad range of theatrical skills they might not have a chance to learn otherwise.
“We do like to stretch in different directions,” he admits.
“I wanted to get the cast into mask work, and this play, which has fantasy characters and a number of characters is a good vehicle for that.”
Unlike the company’s production of Noises Off last year, which had a massive and intricate set, Peer Gynt will be performed with a bare minimum of set, and the audience seated “arena style” on all four sides of the playing area.
“Actually, it’s kind of back to Moving Parts’ roots, because the very first production we did was Comedy of Errors, which was also arena setting, no set at all,” Solomon says.
“So 11 years after we started, we went right to where we started, with a mask play done in arena.”
The story of Peer Gynt, which originated in Norwegian folklore, follows the title character’s life from young manhood to old age.
After kidnapping the bride at a village wedding, Gynt flees his home, abandoning both his devoted mother, Åse, and the woman who loves him, Solveig.
Gynt, Solomon explains, “tries to become a big man in the world, and every turn he takes he’s stepping farther and farther away from what makes him great, until he comes home and discovers what it was.”
His travels take him to several countries and expose him to many life forms, real and fantastic, such as monkeys and trolls.
“On the way he meets several supernatural characters, including, we think, the Almighty, the Devil, and an interesting character in the middle called the Button Moulder,” the director explains.
Winluck Wong plays the title role in the Moving Parts production. He is the only cast member with just one character, but he dons three separate masks to portray Gynt at different stages of life.
“What’s going to differentiate the age is the actor himself. He does have a really good grasp of the differences of physicality from one age to the other.”
Other principal performers include Tracy Erman as Åse, Katy Organ as Solveig, Mike Ivens as both the King of the Trolls and the Devil, Sophia Marnik as the Strange Passenger, John Main as Alsak, the blacksmith and Carolyn Westburg as the Button Moulder.
“Most other characters in the play are one-time only, one-shot characters, they come on, they go off,” Solomon explains, although all the actors except Wong play monkeys at one stage.
That rapid-fire change of character presents his actors with their biggest challenge, and opportunity, Solomon admits.
“There’s a lot of unreal characters, so their movement for that was fascinating to explore and should be interesting to watch.”