The stage was set at Boston’s Symphony Hall. The Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) was in place, with an 80-person chorus lined up three-deep behind it. In front of the musicians and conductor Ken-David Masur, actors used the set pieces—tables, chairs, stools, and coat racks—as mountains, ships, troll dungeons, wedding locales, and forests to dramatize Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. In all, 150 people filled the stage, a long, flat space with no curtain.
Peer Gynt, one of the most widely performed Norwegian plays, chronicles the titular character’s journey from the mountains of Norway to the deserts of North Africa. Combining Ibsen’s play and the Edvard Grieg music of the same name at the same time was the idea of writer and director Bill Barclay ’03. He calls it “concert theater,” and it was the first time he’d performed such work in his hometown of Boston.
“It’s live collaboration,” said Barclay over coffee a few days before opening night earlier this fall. “I want the audience to feel encouraged to use their imagination to fill in all of Ibsen’s textual imagery and his amazing worlds.”
Barclay, whose full-time job is Director of Music at Shakespeare’s Globe in London, has produced 80 plays and 150 concerts and is one of two non-British employees at the theater.
His version of Peer Gynt was lively, thoughtful, fun, and sad as Peer travels through life chasing dreams, without committing to anything or anyone; at the end of his life, the character is bereft. The Boston Globe called the performance a “brave endeavor” and noted how Barclay’s “mixture of classical drama, folkloristic fantasy, cabaret-style archness, and wink-winking 21st-century irony” took Symphony Hall “to an entirely different place.”
Actors Caroline Kinsolving ’03 and Caleb Mayo ’03, who plays the title role, were also part of the production.
Mayo says, “It’s a little bit radical in some ways. People are used to seeing the focus on the music or on the theater. It’s a little bit jarring to have both of them happen at the same time, but that’s what’s so exciting.”
Kinsolving described the performance as “whimsical and funny. I’ve always believed that if you’re having fun in the creative process, it’s going to be that much better.” It’s clear from watching the play in rehearsal and in front of an audience that the seven-member ensemble cast, plus fiddler and soprano, was engaged and having fun.
Barclay read all the translations of the Ibsen play and then wrote his own, condensing the five-hour play down to one. He also worked on the incidental musical score, so it matched the action. He’s created several other concert theater pieces, including Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the BSO at Tanglewood in the summer of 2017, as well as The Soldier’s Tale at Tanglewood, Shakespeare at the Bowl with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and Antony and Cleopatra with the BBC and Shakespeare’s Globe in 2016.
Barclay, who double-majored in drama and music, was already mixing the two genres at Vassar. He says combining the two now comes naturally to him. “I immediately start thinking of how I can tell the story alongside the music,” he says.
Mayo grew up in Marblehead, MA, and first met Barclay, from Weston, MA, during high school—they both performed in state theater festivals. They decided to be first-year roommates at Vassar. Mayo says, “Bill’s come a long way. His exposure to world-caliber shows at the Globe is immediately apparent. He is both open and decisive, which is crucial.”
Kinsolving, the daughter of actors and writers, who grew up in Connecticut, says, “There is no hierarchy. Everyone is ready to be part of the whole. That really comes from Bill.”
She worked with Mayo and Barclay at Vassar after declaring drama as her major in the spring of her junior year—a little late by most standards, but she says, “I was an undercover drama major already.”
All three credit Vassar with helping them to develop their creative paths as well as their long-lasting friendships. “We were allowed to put our fingers in the paint and figure it out,” says Kinsolving, who has plans to move to New York soon.
Mayo, who has chosen London as his next city of residence, says, “The intellectual value of cohabitating with a few thousand curious, excitable minds was the greatest, most fulfilling aspect of the education.”
—Morgan Baker ’80