THEATRE / Not forgetting the bits in between: John Barton's production of Peer Gynt opens at Stratford today. Paul Taylor meets the veteran director who has made his name by taking flawed masterpieces and 'shaking the texts about'

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In John Barton's position, you'd have to be a trainee saint to avoid feeling a pang of relief and a flicker of schadenfreude. Consider the situation. Before Christmas, the veteran RSC director, whose last work at Stratford was the 1989 co-production of Coriolanus with Terry Hands, had not been scheduled to contribute to the forthcoming season. Then the planned first play and its director had to drop out and he was approached by Adrian Noble about filling the breach.

The initial talk was of mounting The Relapse - the greatest of Restoration comedies, in Barton's view, but one of those plays to which he feels he would have nothing special to bring. In 1990 and 1991, though, he had made a striking success in Oslo with a chamber production of Peer Gynt, performed in the round at the National Theatre with a Norwegian cast. So it was decided that he would re-work his acclaimed staging, this time with the RSC at the Other Place.

Understandably superstitious about retreading the same path, 'because if you have a goodly success, you don't think the gods are going to be kind to you again', Barton also had to contend with a worry of a rather less nebulous kind. Yukio Ninagawa's massive, internationally cast, hi-tech version of Peer Gynt had already been booked to visit the main stage of the Barbican, its run a mere matter of weeks before Barton's stylistically almost antithetical staging was due to open in Stratford. In the megawatt light of the Ninagawa, would critics be not-so-gently hinting to Barton and Co that, where Ibsen's great epic is concerned, size does matter?

It would be hard to imagine a face less likely to stoop to gloating than the noble wreckage of Barton's countenance. Prodded about the entirely negative critical response to Ninagawa's mammoth god, though, he admits: 'Of course it was heartening if one was taking the opposite approach. But one also felt for the actors and for the main fellow (Michael Sheen) who was so valiant and good. I mean, you can't do international casting as Peter Brook does unless you can really communicate with everyone and work together. It looked like a Great Dictator production - you know, 'I've got my lighting; I've got my design; I've got my concept; I've got my film of onions. And in between there are some scenes.' '

It's these 'in-between' bits that Barton concentrates on in a spare, free-moving, presentational account of the epic, with Peer's adventures - stretched over five acts from dreamy, fantastical youth to embittered old age, and taking in such ports of call as the orgiastic Troll kingdom and a Cairo madhouse - staged as a play- within-a-play - that can be cheerfully indiscreet about the doubling of parts and the resourceful, hand-to-mouth scenic evocations.

Peer Gynt is the third Ibsen play that Barton has tackled. His production of the undervalued Pillars of the Community with Ian McKellen and Judi Dench came as a revelation when it opened at the Warehouse in 1977, and he launched off into saga territory when he mounted the rarely staged Vikings at Helgeland in Bergen in 1983. It's significant that whereas most directors would have Hedda Gabler, Ghosts and A Doll's House in the equivalent spaces on their CVs, Barton has either been drawn to work that pre-dates the classic social issue plays of Ibsen's prime or, in Pillars, gone for an early example of the type that contains a tonally (and morally) tricky happy ending.

What he describes as 'flawed masterpieces' have had a fascination for him throughout his career. 'I like to try and go for the ones where something has to be solved, or where something doesn't quite work.' The heterogeneity and mood- shifts of Peer Gynt were, he admits, no great problem to someone who had negotiated his way around Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida and the two parts of Henry IV. It was the sheer bulk of Ibsen's play, written as a dramatic poem and needing an adaptor's hand to lick it into shape for the stage, that required his skill at 'shaking and knocking texts about'.

Barton's talents in this line, which have sometimes borne controversial fruit, go back a long way. It was he who, for the celebrated Wars of the Roses in 1963, condensed four Shakespeare Histories (the Henry VI trilogy and Richard III) into three plays that kept a tight focus on the intricacies of the power game and contained 1,400 lines of Barton's own pastiche Elizabethan verse. Likewise, for his vast, nine-hour, 10-play enterprise The Greeks in 1980, he had to compose his own 40-minute play, adapted from Homer, so as to bring the whole subject of the wrath of Achilles into this otherwise largely Euripidean sequence.

Barton is a great one for having second thoughts about writers' discarded first thoughts. He tends to go back to the manuscript material, survey the evidence and reinstate speeches or scenes he feels throw the play and its patterns into sharper relief. One piece of restoration he has made on Peer Gynt nicely illustrates how, in the theatre, practical necessity and theatrical desirability can sometimes work hand-in-glove.

Solveig, the heroine who waits a lifetime for Peer with drippy, preternatural patience, is clearly a problem in the play. 'She's so important and yet has such a small part and is the least interesting character in the writing - which is why I did the very simple thing of doubling Solveig and Peer's mother, Aase, and I was amazed to find that it had never been done before.' The psychological and theatrical resonances this occasions sound like undoubted benefits, but it still leaves the bread-and-butter logistical problem unsolved. So to cover one of the actress's tricky changes, Barton has restored a manuscript scene (where Solveig's father makes Peer the vertiginous offer of his daughter's hand, provided the youth surrenders to the law for seven years) which seemed to possess a particular charge on the page and has proved to have it on the stage as well.

But is Barton's attraction to the flawed work purely intellectual or are there also psychological reasons behind it? 'It's probably a terrible mixture of reasons. I don't really know,' he answers, revealing that he originally wanted to be a writer, but had suffered a dreadful block. He'd have worked with living authors, he says, if they hadn't been so well catered for by people like Max Stafford-Clark. 'My impulse in all this is primarily directorial, though.'

Take, for example, the question of Ibsen's sense of humour. To the English ear, that sounds about as promising as Shaw's eroticism but, says Barton, Norwegians complain that foreigners under-exploit the comedy to be found in even Ibsen's darkest works (barring perhaps the last two). This isn't always the case, though. Anyone visiting the RSC's current production of Ghosts would have to agree that in John Carlisle's performance, the self-deceived Pastor Manders emerges as one of the funniest characters in dramatic literature. Barton has a hankering to do Love's Comedy, an early play in which Ibsen anticipates spirited Shavian debate about love and marriage by some 30-odd years. 'It's a sort of mixture of Shaw and Fry, if such a thing could be imagined,' he remarks - a comment that intensifies one's sense of the young Ibsen's near-Shakespearian range and variety before he set his sights exclusively on the stifling bourgeois home. In the meantime, there's the exuberant comedy of Peer Gynt, a play in which, as Barton puts it, 'Ibsen really let his hair down and had a ball.'

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(Photographs omitted)

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