THEATRE / Incredible journey: Paul Taylor on John Barton's exhilarating production of Peer Gynt at the Swan, Stratford

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The Independent Culture
Go round and about,' breathes the Boyg, the ectoplasmic troll monster whose malign advice sends Peer Gynt off on the huge, evasive detour that is his life. John Barton's marvellous Swan production works on precisely the opposite principle. It attacks Ibsen's great epic with an exhilarating directness, its spare, free-moving presentational style re-assembling this massive and various work before your eyes. Securely underpinning this effect of improvisatory freshness, though, is a lot of original thought about how to give a tighter, more expressive shape to Ibsen's sprawling story.

Towards the end of Peer's eventful, but in a crucial sense perpetually postponed life, there's a weird scene in which the thoughts he should have thought, the feelings he should have felt spill reproachfully about him in the shape of balls of thread. Barton has had the haunting idea of inventing a scene at the start where, while the baby Peer is being sung to, these phantom phenomena cluster round, personified by the female chorus: 'We are your thoughts; we wait for you to think us . . .'

This piercing little prologue sets up several opportunities for heightening the emotional connectedness of the piece. The later threadball scene now has a much more heart-twisting impact. In Barton's production, the same actress, excellent Haydn Gwynne, plays both Aase, the mother he's abnormally close to and Solveig, the one true love he's psychologically constrained to keep at a distance. This means that the identity of the woman singing the lullaby is ambiguous and so creates an intensely moving pre-echo of the end of Peer's journey, when, aged and desolate, he slumps on the breast of Solveig - a true mother to him in the metaphoric sense that his best self is the invention of her steadfast love.

The prologue also gives a play-within-a-play feel to Peer's adventures and the chorus, who don't hide the fact that they are the same actresses cropping up in different guises everywhere on his itinerary, impart a spooky sense of underlying continuity. It's as though, despite the outre diversities of locale (troll kingdom, coast of Morocco etc), Peer's experiences are all recurring projections of his own arrested personality.

Alex Jennings as the hero displays terrific chameleon powers. That outsize face of his has always struck me as coming straight off a playing-card in Alice, but this places no limits on the range of masks his Peer can present to the world: blarneying Irish loon with the mischievous twinkle and the calculating curl to the upper lip; slicked-back man of the world; rangy mock-majestic pseudo-prophet; oldster agape with tearful horror at the dawning sense of waste.

Like the production, his performance makes seamless shifts from exuberant comedy to darker moods of fear and disorientation. Droll touches (the Strange Passenger is all the more sinister here for casually practising his golf putts while speaking), jostle with moments that carry a mysterious poetic charge, as when the shooting star, whose fading spells the end of Peer's hopes, is launched from a photographer's magnesium flare and descends over the hero in a sterile shower of glitter. The various atmospheres are beautifully underlined by the musical arrangements of Per Christian Revholt, which range from tongue-in-cheek cliched evocations of local colour to the poignant Irish air, spellbindingly sung by Gwynne.

(Photograph omitted)

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