Preview: The Big I Am

A new imagining of Peer Gynt is moved to another century but is still as ‘mad and full of great ideas’ as the original

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Ibsen’s 1867 verse play Peer Gynt is one of those classic pieces that people tend to have heard about rather than actually seen. It’s now being staged by Liverpool Everyman in an entirely rewired form under the title The Big I Am.

It’s the work of playwright Robert Farquhar, who says: “I think most people recognise that Peer Gynt’s quite a long and difficult play, so I’ve worked against that really. I’ve completely reimagined it and tried to make it accessible. I’ve used the structure but probably only about three or four lines from the original text.

“Peer Gynt is a play that I’ve always been fascinated by, because it doesn’t fit into a box. You think, blimey, how did Ibsen come to write this 150 years ago?

“It’s so qualitatively different to the majority of his other work, like A Doll’s House or Ghosts. Those plays are far more naturalistic. This is just mad and full of great ideas, so I suppose my intention was to boil those ideas down and make it as funny and as moving as possible, while staying true to the unique oddness of Peer Gynt.”

Boldly, Farquhar has relocated Ibsen’s continent-hopping fairy tale about the life of a charming, chaotic peasant boy to Britain in the latter half of the 20th century. “I was thinking about Peer Gynt and the fact he’s this very outrageous, rebellious, full-of-himself young man, violent, sentimental and poetic. It struck me that there was something of the John Lennon about him.”

Consequently, This Big I Am sets a key early wedding scene in the north of England in the early 1960s, whereas Gynt’s subsequent retreat to a cottage in the middle of nowhere has echoes of the hippy era. By no means has it become a play about John Lennon – “that was just the initial inspiration”, Farquhar explains – but there are a few passing references to the details of his life, such as Gynt being born during a Blitz raid.

For some Peer Gynt will forever be associated with the instantly recognisable music written for it by Edvard Grieg. The Big I Am doesn’t keep Grieg’s full score, but it does play around with it. Farquhar says: “There’s a song that we do to Hall of the Mountain King, but it’s not in the scene where it would normally be. I’ve written lyrics to it so it’s become a big musical theatre number. We use Solveig’s song at the very end too, hopefully in a very moving way.”

As a whole, though, he says The Big I Am is “jam-packed with music. As well as Grieg, we’re using Helen Shapiro, The Incredible String Band, X-Ray Spex, Fatboy Slim, a bit of Elvis”.

The end result is a bold undertaking that draws together the Everyman’s current rep company as well as members of its youth theatre, with up to 30 performers on stage at times. Farquhar says: “I’ve loved the licence that this has given me to write in a much bigger, more epic way than I normally would.

“I’ve tried to boil down what could be a five-hour poetic epic into two-and-a-half hours of really good fun. Hopefully it should just be a great night out at the theatre.”

The Big I Am runs 16 June–14 July, Liverpool Everyman (

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