Arts: Peerless progress

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AMID HIS extraordinary peregrinations, Ibsen's Peer Gynt fetches up among the Circle of Seventy Interpreters. It's been recently increased, says his host, sweeping an arm round the auditorium, to 660. And so we are all, before this amazing and disconcerting play, interpreters. Or rather part-interpreters, for it is exhilaratingly complex: philosophical, comic, tragic, satiric, and fantastic.

Sometimes director Braham Murray takes us sportively by the hand as in the scene where the "lunatics", freed following the passing away of Reason, emerge as Marx, Freud, Einstein and Chris Evans. Best of all, Fellah, a comic type representing Ibsen's perpetual obsession with the burden of the past, turns out to be Tony Blair (mimicked superbly by Joseph Murray), whose particular load is a papoose holding the mummified figure of Mrs Thatcher.

But the progress of Peer Gynt, madcap as it is, is not a game, nor does this production turn it into one. The incorrigible boy-fantasist whom we meet telling his mother of riding a stag over glaciers, and who elopes with another's bride at her wedding, visits the troll-kingdom, travels the world making and losing fortunes only to return home shipwrecked after 50 years, is a picaresque hero who, for all his journeys through the material and unconscious worlds, can never discover his own self. Famously, he sees himself in the onion he peels: all layers and nothing at the centre.

If there is an English actor protean enough to seize the metamorphoses of Peer Gynt, it is David Threlfall. The shaven-headed kid tugging impatiently at his mother's attention as he tells his tale becomes the pursued but potent youth exulting that "This Is life!". In middle-age, he is the suave, pony-tailed millionaire, Turkish pasha, fake maharishi and interrogator of the Sphinx. He returns home as shorn and restless a survivor as the Ancient Mariner.

Threlfall sheds and dons these skins with bewildering, though increasingly agonised, facility. But following him as a physical being rather than an abstraction, we can see the helix of continuity. Threlfall has the capacity to reduce his countenance to fearful essentials: a mask simply punctuated by eye sockets and a blow-hole mouth. Through the play's swells, it colours, fills and animates, but from boy to old age, this imprint, an uncomfortable "kind of old scarecrow", remains and returns. No wonder Peer would rather keep his identity in Hell than be reduced in the Button- Moulder's ladle, and the connection of physical being and identity may also run across the conclusion that his true self inheres in Solveig's constant love. But that will happen when ideas are made flesh, especially in a performance as distinctive and magnificent as this.

And so much more: Josette Bushell-Mingo, erect and serene as Solveig, contrastingly sensual elsewhere; the decisive strokes of Simon Higlett's design, especially the aerial ballet of white birds; and Akintayo Akinbode's music. Go join the interpreters - and enjoy.

Jeffrey Wainwright

Until 13 March: 0161-833 9833