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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Brand
Haymarket Theatre 2003

Ibsen's massive play-poem is a powerful evening's drama. But I must preface my praise of this RSC production with the warning that, even in this heavily-edited version, it is pretty heavy going, and not for those looking for a light evening out.

Ibsen's titular hero is a severe and uncompromising man of God, who demands of himself and those who follow him an absolute submission to the cruel deity he sees. Man can only be saved, he preaches, by willing himself to sacrifice everything to God's demands. The play makes us watch the toll this hard faith takes on those around him and on Brand himself, at the same time showing the fulfilment it offers.

It's a long and unwieldy play, like Peer Gynt and some of Ibsen's other early works, and is rarely attempted - the last major production was in 1978 at the National Theatre. Back then, Michael Bryant played him as a repressed, frock-coated burgher, with all his turmoil internalised.

Under Adrian Noble's direction Ralph Fiennes gives us a younger, more passionate Brand, and thus makes us aware of the character's minute-to-minute strain of repressing his own natural vitality - I don't mean to trivialise the play in any way when I say that we are always aware that if he would just relax and lighten up, he could lead a happy life.

But of course it is Brand's tragedy that he cannot lighten up, and that he feels he can only save his soul and the souls of those around him by being constantly vigilant to any hints of self-indulgence or relaxation of the iron will to serve God. And, onstage almost without interruption, and frequently on his own, Fiennes' playing of the role makes that tragedy especially powerful.

As strong as his performance is, I would not be surprised if the acting awards this year went to Claire Price as his wife. First seen as a happy and innocent bride, she abandons her groom to follow Brand's magnetic energy, and takes on the special fervour of the convert. It is she who makes the greatest sacrifices to his jealous God, giving up her youth, her child and eventually her life, but Price shows us, without irony or question, the intensity of faith that carries the woman through all this to an apotheosis that almost justifies Brand's gospel.

The heavy cutting (close to half the original text) in Michael Meyer's translation reduces other potentially strong characters to little more than walk-ons, with Oliver Cotton, Susan Engel and Laura Rees doing the most they can with what's left of their roles.

Many will be drawn to this production just to see the movie star, and some of those will find the play, like Brand's gospel, more than they can handle. But for those prepared to take an uncompromising look at the glories and costs of an uncompromising faith, Brand is as powerful an evening's theatre as you are likely to find this year.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Brand - Haymarket 2003