THEATRE / When Peer Gynt is a game boy

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The Independent Culture
SINCE I first saw him in the 1940s, the hero of Ibsen's Peer Gynt has gone through some extravagant changes, from a counter-Don Quixote to a petit bourgeois Faust. But it has been left to Yukio Ninagawa to trivialise the supreme fantasist of modern drama into a video games addict.

Up to a point you can see this idea's appeal, particularly in the context of a hugely expensive international touring production. Video games, after all, offer a kind of universal language and lend themselves to spectacular staging. Had they been around in the 1860s, you can imagine Peer haunting the Gudbrandsdal Virtual Reality Centre for his daily plunge into dreams of omnipotence. All this suggests a stage equivalent of Disney's Tron, with the hero locked into the world of the machine. My objection is not so much to the idea as to its bungled execution.

Instead of rethinking the play in terms of electronic imagery, Ninagawa merely uses the imagery as a framing device. A wordless games parlour prologue leads on to wide- screen projections of outer space, featuring Peer's symbolic onion as one of the planets. Then up goes the gauze on a straightforward performance of Ibsen's first scene. Electronics linger on only in Tsukasa Nakagoshi's set, which aligns toy theatre properties (a painted fire in Ase's plywood fireplace) with walls representing a magnified printed circuit. It is, in the direst sense, a concept setting. Those walls remain coldly divorced from the stage action, most of all when Ninagawa tries to theatricalise them (eg as a climbing frame for Peer's flight up the mountain). What they do is to undermine the story by asserting that it is only happening inside a television set.

Ninagawa, the poet-magician of Macbeth and Medea, survives in one area: the use of light. Tamotsu Harada, his lighting designer, puts lights everywhere, honeycombing walls, hand-held for front projection, and covering the full spectrum from the iron-grey north to tutti-frutti Arabian sunsets. At key moments, the physical setting dissolves: Peer wrestles with the Boyg in a labyrinth of shifting spokes of light; or, when shipwrecked, turns to meet the macabre Traveller, as the heaving grey- green waves subside into a spectral plateau of piercing cobalt blue. Here, at least, is the real world of the play.

But not, alas, in the language. Poetry, satire, folk realism and nascent expressionism come together in this masterpiece, along with passages of Shakespearean transcendence. Frank McGuinness's version may reflect all these elements, but there is no telling from this production, in which the two international leads - Espen Skjonberg's Troll King and Haruhiko Joh's Buttonmoulder - are verbally incomprehensible. There are some excellent small performances (notably from Bronagh Gallagher and Ronan Vibert), and Paula Dionisotti reveals Ase to be another grand-scale Gyntian fantasist. But the prevailing tone is one of extrovert story-telling, blurring any distinction between the different narrative idioms.

Michael Sheen would be luxury casting for Dylan Thomas's No Good Boyo. As Peer, a Welsh firecracker let loose in a sleepy Irish village,

he skids through the role - mop- haired hellraiser, ferret-like globetrotter, whiskery revenant with a palpably artificial limp - without registering the character's inner turning points. But maybe this is what Ninagawa wanted. At the end, Sheen peels off his wig and beard and returns to the games parlour as a teenager. Ibsen's Peer wastes his life in the quest for self-fulfilment. You cannot say that of Ninagawa's Peer, whose life has not even begun.

Daniel Magee's Paddywack begins with the impending arrival of a new lodger at the Kilburn digs which Colin, an LSE student, shares with two middle-aged working men. We get their measure from the Cockney Brian's anti-Irish sniping and the Irish Michael's panic that the newcomer may be Pakistani. He turns out to be an enigmatic young Dubliner, Damien, whose command of teasing irony drives the two working- class racists into paroxysms of foaming wrath, and utterly charms the middle-class liberal Colin. So much so that he introduces Damien to his right-on girlfriend.

Up to this point, Michael Latimer's production has you on the edge of your seat. The characters have the kind of authenticity that makes you wonder how well you'd cope with them yourself if you happened to be sharing the same roof. The dialogue is violently witty without any sense of display by the writer. The situation is typical, but it arouses engrossing interest in what will happen next; and the meeting of Damien and the girl - two combatively intelligent figures from historically antagonistic backgrounds - sizzles with sexual electricity.

Then they cheat on Colin, and the lies begin. The piece never loses its power to demonstrate the unbeatable articulacy of prejudice; but its plot collapses into an avalanche of hatred, polarising all but one of the Brits into the collective enemy of the intruder. Magee's mistake is to let Damien explain himself. His true function is to expose the other characters; and his presence is strongest when he leaves them and us guessing over his IRA sympathies. Still, an exhilaratingly intelligent piece with savage, witty, truthful performances from James Nesbitt (Damien), Brian Croucher (Brian) and the rest of a fine Soho Poly company.

'Peer Gynt': Barbican, EC2, 071-638 8891. 'Paddywack': Cockpit, NW8, 071-402 5081.