THEATRE / When truth doesn't get in the way of a good story

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TWO MONTHS ago, Yukio Ninagawa fell flat on his face with an extravagantly misconceived version of Ibsen's Peer Gynt, thus paving the way for John Barton to romp home with a shoestring production to gladden the theatrical puritans. Who needs great directors when you get better results with two planks and a passion?

There are endless differences between these shows. But in one central respect - the Irish village setting - they are identical: and when they diverge it is because Barton has the stronger directorial concept. Where Ninagawa simply transposed the Norwegian scenes to Ireland, Barton projects the whole piece, including its hero's global wanderings, as a piece of Irish folklore. At first, Alex Jennings's cocky, fast-talking Peer has a lot in common with Synge's Playboy. He is another product of a peasant society where imagination and eloquence compensate for material poverty. As in Synge, you are on his side while also waiting for him to be caught out.

Then an amazing thing happens. Peer Gynt is the fable of a fantasist. Past productions have shown a dreamer overtaken by external events. On Barton's stage, the distinction between real and imaginary disappears. Peer takes his mother in with the story of the buck. Then he takes us in too, with his supposed trips abroad. And when he returns to his birthplace, it is in the guise of one of those Celtic innocents who spend a night with the little people and find it has lasted 100 years.

The drawback to this scheme is that it robs you of the sight of the aged Peer. Dishevelled but youthful as ever, Jennings meets the Button-Moulder (a sweetly implacable Alfred Burke) not in a state of terminal defiance but rather bewildered at being prematurely called to account. The emotional impact of the long-delayed homecoming is muted, even though Barton has prepared for it by including a scene in which Solveig's father advises Peer to 'go through' the obstacles in his way instead of going 'round about' on his fruitless life-long detour.

It is a penalty of Barton's scheme that the sense of real time is missing. But the journey itself is marvellously staged, thanks partly to Jennings's ability to combine acting with story- telling, and to create settings out of thin air. One glance, and a piano turns into a millhouse. It is all in the role; and when he drives the dying Aase (Haydn Gwynne) on her last fairytale ride, fantasy and lying turn into filial virtue. This scene gains added impact from the fact that the roles of Solveig and Aase are doubled; so when Peer abandons one for the other, there is no act of betrayal.

The power of such moments derive from Barton's success in preserving a line of objective narrative parallel with Peer's fantasies. He achieves this by turning Christopher Fry's translation into a musical play with a chorus. At the Hegstad wedding, an Irish band pumps out dances for the guests, until the bridally crowned Ingrid (Olivia Williams) departs. All very real. Then the company shed their identities to re-emerge as creatures of Peer's imagination; even Solveig's father appears among the hymn-singing Trolls as an embodiment of conscience.

Similarly, once the journey begins, the band reflects Peer's dreams of liberated affluence by switching to Viennese operetta. When they rashly venture a phrase from Grieg's 'Hall of the Mountain King', Peer quells them with a dirty look. He is running the show; but Chorus doubling has the effect of turning his adventures into echoes of the past. The one sustaining thread is the melody of 'Sally Gardens', which replaces Solveig's Song and preserves the elegiac loss at the heart of this mighty dramatic poem.

Cocteau, as Simon Callow says in a fine programme essay for Les Parents Terribles, may have regarded his entire diverse output as poetry; but when he exchanged film for theatre, his literary style seemed to disappear into the past. Based on the home life of the actor Jean Marais this 1938 'drame bourgeois' seeks to smuggle a consignment of mythic and Freudian contraband onto the Right Bank under cover of a conventional boulevard plot: a father and son in love with the same girl.

Sean Matthias's sumptuously cast and designed production is at pains to break down the English resistance to this Gallic wizard. The curtain rises on Stephen Brimson Lewis's first act set, revealing a wild-eyed Sheila Gish, as the mother, staggering into the bathroom through the piles of dirty washing that litter her monumental sanctuary. It is at once a squalid Paris apartment and the antechamber of a palace. Presently her husband (Alan Howard) arrives, to cope with her latest overdose. Cocteau say he is wearing a flannel suit. But as he is supposed to be an unsuccesful inventor, he is rigged out in waders and goggles. Production and translation (Jeremy Sams) ransack the text to diversify its tone. There are flashes of comedy, passages of explosive fun between mother and son (Jude Law), and piercing insights from the languidly gimlet-eyed Frances de la Tour. Lynsey Baxter turns the idealised Madeleine into a credible girl, if not a believable bookbinder (there are limits). Bit by bit, though, the atmosphere of the sickroom takes over; and by the end you are wondering what claim these lying, possessive, endlessly self-justifying derelicts have on the public's attention.

The appearance within a week of two home-grown new plays in the West End seems an upcheering event; and so it is in the case of Terence Frisby's courtroom drama Rough Justice. In presenting the case of a father who confesses to having suffocated his brain-damaged child, Frisby explores the moral and legal grey areas of mercy killing; he also liberates the genre itself by making the defendant a television journalist who specialises in miscarriages of justice. A traditional trial and a trial by television thus compete on the same stage. Frisby does not pursue this to the logical conclusion of letting each audience decide the protagonist's fate; but he loads the dice equally, and finds two incisive opponents in Diana Quick and Martin Shaw.

In Michael Palin's The Weekend, Richard Wilson holds court for two hours as a vile-tempered grandfather who abuses his wife, insults his neighbours, bullies his visiting children, and winds up at 4.30 in the morning tearfully confessing that it is all because he is shy and professionally unsuccessful. Robin Lefevre's production shows a good company (Angela Thorne, Michael Medwin) reduced to playing one-note stooges around the spitefully quipping hero, and laden with every comic cliche from the drunk scene to the incontinent dog. Dire.

'Peer Gynt': Stratford Swan, 0789 295623. 'Les Parents Terribles': Lyttelton, SE1, 071-928 2252. 'Rough Justice': Apollo, W1, 071-494 5070. 'The Weekend': Strand, WC2, 071-836 4144.