Theatre PEER GYNT RSC, Young Vic, London

  • @RobertHanks
It's doubtful whether any production of Peer Gynt can be entirely satisfactory: the play is so fragmented, so wildly varied in style and tone - so bloody long, if we're going to be completely frank - that no one staging it is ever going to get all its parts right. There will always be longueurs, passages where the tone jars or that seem to bear no relation to what's going on around them - what varies from production to production is which particular parts don't fit. (The corollary of this is that you have to work hard to make a production with no redeeming features.)

The impressive thing about John Barton's production for the RSC, now transferred from Stratford to the Young Vic, is that almost everything does fit - indeed, it comes as close to fulfilling all the play's demands as any Peer Gynt you're likely to see; and even though, inevitably, it has its flaws, it gives you a powerful idea of why Ibsen's "dramatic poem", for all its unstageability, still captures the imagination.

The production is grounded firmly in Nordic folklore, the action backed by Per Christian Revholt's rather oompah-ish folk arrangements, the women of the chorus all wearing dirndl-style dresses; it helps that Barton has used Christopher Fry's jaunty version, with its nursery-style rhymes. The effect is to make more sense of the story's lurching, picaresque progress - this is how folk tales do work, through accretion of action rather than in a strictly linear way - and to focus your attention on story-telling as one of the play's central themes. Alex Jennings's magnificent Peer isn't simply taking refuge from his real-life failures in tall tales; he's an inspired fabulist, and telling stories is one of the ways he defines the "self" he's constantly striving to be true to - so that you realise that, for Ibsen, Peer isn't simply an Everyman, he's the artist in society.

Jennings is one of the main reasons for seeing this production: it's a brilliantly eye-catching, nimble performance - at the start of the second half, for instance, when he's the wealthy and successful Sir Peter Gynt, he throws himself into a succession of different roles, hopping from accent to accent (blunt Northerner, Yankee trader), or sliding into a languorous pose (strongly reminiscent of Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia) to play the Eastern prophet. But he never lets you lose sight of Peer's weakness, the itch of self-doubt that drives him on, so you're caught between contempt and affection.

There aren't any real weak spots in the casting; Haydn Gwynne's graceful Solveig and Alfred Burke's matter-of-fact Button-moulder are strong supplementary reasons for seeing the play. The main reason not to see it is a lack of intensity at some key moments - Peer's encounter with the trolls and his brief reign as emperor of the Egyptian madhouse don't catch the surreal power those scenes can have. It's hard to say, though, how far this is a fault of the production or a result of the curious fact that, on Monday's press night, the auditorium was no more than three-quarters full - big gaps in the seats can have a muffling effect. So maybe, after all, that's just another reason to see it.

n To 14 Oct. Booking: 0171-928 6363