THEATRE / A Peer with no equals: The plan was to stage Ibsen's Peer Gynt on home soil in Olympic year. Enter the Japanese master Ninagawa. Teaterflopp] jeered a Norwegian critic. By Paul Taylor

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The Independent Culture
For the first night speeches and celebrations, Ellen Horn, the artistic director of Norway's National Theatre, had arrayed herself in traditional Norwegian costume, the effect being roughly equivalent to Richard Eyre welcoming a visiting foreign company done up as a Beefeater.

It seemed a particularly rum choice of outfit, given the thrust of her remarks, which stressed that while Ibsen thought Peer Gynt was the least likely of his works to be understood outside Scandinavia, Norway's great national epic had come to belong to the world - all countries recognising an archetype in Peer, the incorrigible dreamer and liar. The new version unveiled in Oslo at the weekend might be said to underline this point to the verge of parody.

It's a British-Japanese co-production, costing three quarters of a million pounds for just 28 performances on a tour that will move from Oslo to London's Barbican, then to Manchester, City of Drama, and to Tokyo. The director is the Japanese master Yukio Ninagawa who (as audiences in London and Edinburgh will know) has thrown new and ravishing light on Shakespeare, Euripedes and Mishima with his distinctively sensuous synthesisings of oriental and western stage convention. The cast in those pieces was all-Japanese. The current show, by contrast, brings him together with an English-speaking (though far from exclusively English) cast, with a dazzling young Welsh leading man in Michael Sheen and a translation by the Irish playwright Frank McGuinness. There are, as you'd expect, some bizarre cultural collisions. The Troll King, for example, is performed by Espen Skjonberg, the distinguished Norwegian actor who is resplendently decked out in Kabuki robes, make up and thrashing lion mane, while spouting a text that gives Ibsen's dialogue a decidedly Celtic twang.

The producers are Thelma Holt and Tadao Nakane, who in 1991 were responsible for mounting Tango at the End of Winter, Ninagawa's first project using British performers. It was during the run of this production that Norway approached Ninagawa with an invitation to come to the '94 winter Olympics and direct an Ibsen drama for the National Theatre with a Norwegian cast. Ninawaga was already keen on Peer Gynt, having staged a rock-opera version in Tokyo which was let down by the fact that the young Japanese pop star who took the lead couldn't act. The play, then, was easy to settle; the casting was more delicate . . .

Tadao Nakane won't be drawn on the merits and demerits of Norwegian thesps, but is happy to say that the middle range of Japanese actor is not good at all and that Ninawaga is tired of having to cover for their weaknesses with too many layers of music, lighting and scenery. Ironically, though, given his insistence on a majority of Brits, it evidently still suits Ninawaga, who communicates through an interpreter, to pose as being rather more English than many of those around him suspect can be the case. It is, perhaps, a slyboots method of getting his own way. As for linguistic communication and the local Oslo audience, you felt it was a good job, listening to the robust Irish and Welsh accents on stage, that Norwegians know this story back to front.

The comedy of veiled international tension ran through the weekend. First there was the proposal that the production lose a cool hour of its four hours 20 minutes running time so that the King and Queen of Norway could make their midnight train to Lillehammer and the opening of the Games. (I mean, whose national epic is this?) Then there was the nailbiter over whether a seat in the diplomatic box would be granted to the production's patron, Dr Hogen Fukunaga, a Japanese multi-millionaire and villian-in-a-Bond-movie lookalike who has recently found God and the environment and appeared, to my eyes, to be developing some of the presumptions of the former. It seemed part of the same rich tapestry of international co-production when I visited the National Gallery on Sunday morning and spotted Japanese tourists posing for photographs by the 'Stjalet' ('Stolen') sign on the blank bit of wall where Munch's The Scream had so recently radiated cheer.

Ninawaga's interpretation of Peer Gynt I will discuss in detail when it comes to the Barbican, so I'll confine myself here to a few curtain-raising remarks. There's a good joke in Educating Rita when the heroine is required to write an essay on how she would resolve the enormous staging difficulties of Peer Gynt and makes short work of the job by answering that she would present it on the radio. I was reminded of this because Ninawaga's version sets Peer's wide-ranging circular quest not on the radio but inside a giant television set and against the background of a huge printed circuit.

Drawing on contemporary youth's fixation with video games and virtual reality rather than with the real world, Ninawaga gives the play framing-scenes in a high-tech games parlour where dreamy Peer is sucked into a version of Gamesoft that sends him on the life journey of Ibsen's 19th century Norwegian anti-hero. At the start of each act, this voyage is projected through film and hypnotic computer graphics, in which the image of an onion - the play's key symbol of an existence that is all layers and no core - reappears as a restless globe that bobs up and down, each time depicting a different cityscape on its fickle surface.

I'll reserve judgement for the present on whether this over-arching concept has coherence and depth. What can be said with certainty now is that the lighting of Tamotsu Harada produces effects of unearthly beauty, that the show gives off a strong and youthful company spirit and that 25-year-old Michael Sheen, who plays Peer from youth through to old age (and in this version back to youth again) is sensationally good in the substantial parts of his performance that work. The Norwegian press were grudgingly captivated by the mercurial Welsh boyo in this Peer, but were decidedly unsmitten by the production, the first sighting in Norway of Ninawaga's work. The review in Dagbladet had the resonant headline 'Arets Teaterflopp' or 'Flop of the year'. 'Great,' said one of the actresses stoically, 'we've won an award already'.

(Photograph omitted)