Emily C. Skaftun

(skŏf • tŭn) n. A writer of speculative fiction.

Tag: peer gynt

Peer Gynt at Gålå mixes fantasy with reality

High in the Norwegian mountains is a legendary theatrical experience worth the journey

Photo: Bård Gundersen / courtesy of Peer Gynt Festival
The natural setting is as much a part of the play as the actors and musicians. Characters enter and leave on boats and wade into the water, they chop trees apart, and of course they do it all no matter the weather.

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.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun
Mads Ousdal as Peer Gynt entered in an athletic, swaggery burst of personality that brought the action very much to the audience’s lap.


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.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun
The version of the production that I saw used costumes to great effect. The trolls had a lot of greenery about them, as one might expect, but they were also covered in trash, making them somewhat more urban—not to mention modern—creatures than what Ibsen probably had in mind. Later in the play, we were visited with mental patients armed with selfie sticks, and even dancing soldiers in camo fatigues.

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.

Photo courtesy of Peer Gynt Festival
The artistic team for 2017: Mask & Costume Designer Helena Andersson, Director Sigrid Strøm Reibo, Composer & Musical Director Simon Revholt, and Scene & Costume Designer Gjermund Andresen.

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.

Peer Gynt

And now here I am, at the main event! Today has been a treat so far, and the show will start in about half an hour. It has been raining off and on, but it’s currently off and I hope it stays that way. The sun even poked its head out for a second or two. I am wearing a redonculous amount of clothing–five layers under a rain shell, and a silly hat on top, and the possibility for even more with two ponchos and a wool blanket on loan. Right now (prior to showtime) I am quite comfortable.

There was one other English-speaker at the intro that my host Hanne Maren delivered. I would love to be responsible for other Americans showing up to this thing. I feel I have to, if I’m to pay my way for all the hospitality I’ve been shown.

It started to rain toward the end of the first half of the show, a drizzle and then a more serious rain, and there was a rustle throughout the audience as ponchos were donned. Hanne Maren had loaned me two of them, so I wore one and used the other to cover my things at the break.

Oh, but the play! Energetic, sexy even. The music… Creative. I will have to give the Peer Gynt suite a listen, because this was not that. A refrain of “We are the champions” played at one point while Peer was in Africa. The time period throughout was hard to place. They did start in bunads and farm clothing, but then in Africa it was modern, and Peer’s yacht was a motorboat. There was quite the explosion in the lake when the time came. I really enjoyed the lurking, red-gloved presence of the knappewhoever–the button molder / death.

This is the last year of this actor, Mads Ousdal, as Peer, and there will also be a new director for next year’s show, the 150th anniversary of the play. I will have to find out what they have planned, or at least learn something about the director. Personally, I think the role could have been played better. There was so much shouting and flying spit (though granted, at least some of that is Ibsen’s fault), and it seems to me that Peer could have played it a little cooler and earned a bit more sympathy. Especially knowing that the historical Peer was a respected figure, this one came across a bit psychopathic.

Mads Ousdal dancing in the beginning of Peer Gynt.

Peer Gynt, up close and personal. I was in the front row, so Mads Ousdal was basically in my lap at the beginning of the play.

I wasn’t cold per se, but the rain was pretty unpleasant and contrary to what I’d been told, I didn’t stop noticing it. Hanne Maren told me that it was actually very slight rain compared to a lot of what they have been having.

The play was very real. Peer chopped all the branches off a tree with an axe, and they jumped around on a lot of slick-looking wet surfaces and waded into the freezing lake and waterskied in for one entrance. Crazy shit that I don’t think an American theatre would ever allow. They also drank actual sparkling something, and threw it on the audience. I’d bet money it was wine. We would have gone to such lengths to replace labels on sparkling juice or some such. They just drink.

Trolls! This was the last photo of the show I got before it was too rainy and dark for my poor little phone.

After the play was “varme mat og etterprat”–soup and an interview with Mads. I didn’t get a lot out of the interview. But not nothing. More than from the play, for sure. One of the reasons I was invited to view the play this year was because of their new audio translations, which would provide a short summary of each scene at the beginning. I listened to the first one, then pulled it away from my ear to better watch the play. When I tried to start it again at the beginning of the next scene I couldn’t find my place, and I never did. Which I guess is sort of ironic?

After the talk, Hanne Maren took me back to her cabin and left me there while she went partying with the cast and crew to celebrate the end of the season’s run. Earlier in the day we had attended a prize ceremony for the volunteer of the year, the young woman who played Ingrid in the play. I had thought her a young thing, but there she was in the play with her boobs hanging out, so one hopes she was 18 years old at least. It was really quite the small-town honor, complete with a song written for her and speeches by the current Peer and a past one. And a text message from the director. She apparently joked in her speech about being close to Mads, because last year’s Ingrid is now pregnant with his child.

Before that, I had a real treat at the actual , historical, Per Gynt farm! Reidar, who was described to me as a “Peer Gynt enthusiast,” picked me up from Spidsbergeseter and drove me to places in the Gudbrandsdal, including the grave site of the historical Per Gynt, and up to the actual farm. We got very lucky there in that the current inhabitant, Mikkel Doblaug, saw us and invited us in for coffee. He gave us slippers to wear and sat with us at the kitchen table in his own very old and charming part of the property. There was even a plate of brownies on the table, with little decorative garnishes. Really? He said that he learned, when he moved to the country, that he must always have some cakes on hand.

He took us into the old part of the house, which would have been a very fancy house at the time, on the plan of all the other typical farmhouses that I’ve seen. He even has Per’s christening cap in glass in the room. The space, and more, was once a boutique hotel, but not for a little while. Maybe again in the future.

Inside the real Per Gynt’s house.

My final day in Norway was finally a nice one, weather-wise. I went with Hanne Maren up to the site of the Mountain Concert quite early, and got a tour of the hotel (lovely) and watched a bit of the rehearsal for the show in the almost-warm-enough sunshine. I had more layers with me, but couldn’t bring myself to put them on because the sunshine felt good–when the wind wasn’t making it actually too cold. I had lunch in the hotel, more stewed meat (probably lamb?), which I thought was pretty good.

And then it was time for the concert, which was also an amazing experience. Similar to being at the Gorge in Washington State, but with classical music and singing. I feel I would have gotten more out of it with stronger language skills, but there is something operatic about not understanding the singing too. I have some of the lyrics. My eyes did keep closing, but not from boredom. Tiredness, yes, but also being really warm and cozy enough to drift to sleep.

A nisse in front of a majestic Norwegian view.

Nils Anders Wik hanging out before the Mountain Concert that concludes the Peer Gynt Festival.

It was the perfect end to my week in Norway, capped off with an utepils with Camille from Lillehammer, who had joined us at the concert so she could drive me back to Lillehammer. From there began my long journey home: train to near the Oslo airport, a night at a business hotel, then from Oslo to Stockholm—long layover—Stockholm to Oakland, CA—another long layover—then finally home to Seattle. On the upside, back in Seattle it was finally summer!

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