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A CurtainUp London Review
Brand

Men do not understand what a mountain of guilt arises from that small word life. —Brand
Brand is not Ibsen for beginners but it was Ibsen's beginning. As his very first play, Brand wasn't even written to be performed on stage, rather to be read aloud like a radio play. Just a warning, lest you see the name Ralph Fiennes in lights and stumble into the Theatre Royal Haymarket in the hope of an evening's light entertainment. The rarely performed Brand is a play about religion, mysticism and symbolism and although the language is often poetic, here translated by Michael Meyer, the play is austere and sometimes impenetrable.

As a complete antithesis to his other current West End production, the light hearted musical, a success with children of all ages, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Adrian Noble brings his considerable directing skills and his artistic visuals to this Scandinavian "dramatic poem". The hand of Noble creates the swirling fog over the fjord and light beaming through the tall wooden slats curved at the rear of the stage. The director uses the whole auditorium for entrances and exits and in an early scene Fiennes as Brand conveys his long journey by travelling round the stalls, calling from different points.

Brand tells the tale of a Lutheran priest (Ralph Fiennes) who puts everyone's soul before any other consideration. "All or nothing" is his doctrine. He rejects his dying mother (Susan Engel) because she refuses to give up all her wealth. He refuses to move south to save the life of his own child, suffering as do his poverty struck flock, and he asks his wife to give up her souvenirs, the tiny clothes of their little boy, to a gypsy woman. After the death of his wife Agnes (Claire Price) whose sacrifice has caused her to see the face of God, although a new church has been built in the village, Brand becomes disillusioned. He renounces his priesthood and leads the villagers into the mountains. Brand is stoned by the villagers who have lost faith in him. Gerd (Laura Rees) the gypsy woman shoots the hawk which causes an avalanche. The words "God is Love" are boomed out as Brand is buried by the avalanche.

Brand is a notoriously difficult role and Fiennes often seems to be exploring the anger and asceticism of the character without eliciting our sympathy for the predicament of a man tortured by the harshness of his non-compromising conscience. He crouches and paces the stage in his tweed suit and woollen scarf instead of a shirt and tie like a miner in one of DH Lawrence's novels. It is as if we are always aware that Brand's hair shirt is self-imposed rather than decreed by God. Could it be that Ralph Fiennes, the actor identifies with Brand in choosing for himself these harshly, stoical roles. Claire Price as Agnes looks on in wide-eyed wonderment for much of the play, leaving her fiancÚ to follow Brand's teaching to her moment of exultation, when having seen the face of God, she knows she has to die. Oliver Cotton represents the worldly in a cameo as the opportunist Mayor in the battle between church and state. I liked Susan Engel's grasping mother who tried to take her wealth with her into the next world at the expense of her absolution.

The whole play is beautifully staged. When Brand bravely crosses the fjord in a terrible storm in order to give a dying man the last rites, he believably steers the ship with just a rope angled to simulate the position of the main sail. The sound of the storm, thunder and the lashing of the waves complete the picture. Lighting shifts convey the candle lit Christmas in the Brand's simple home with snow falling behind the wooden slats. Norwegian flags adorn the opening of the new church placing the building in a secular context. The avalanche cracks through the theatre like a bomb blast, a blinding light giving white out.

One has to admire Noble and Fiennes for giving us this super Royal Shakespeare Company production which briefly showed at Stratford last month. For Ibsen devotees, it is interesting to recognise the influences of Brand upon the later, better known plays. With The Lady From the Sea currently at the Almeida and next week, a production of The Master Builder opening at the Albery, London audiences will have that opportunity.

Brand
Written by Henrik Ibsen
Translated by Michael Meyer
Directed by Adrian Noble

Starring: Ralph Fiennes
With: Oliver Cotton, Jim Creighton, James Curran, Alan David, Ian Drysdale, Susan Engel, Sarah Everard, Oliver Golding, Jane Guernier, Colin Haigh, Sidney Livingstone, Jennifer McEvoy, Alistair Petrie, Claire Price, Laura Rees, Clifford Rose, Karen Traynor, Steven Williams
Designer: Peter McKintosh
Lighting Designer: Peter Mumford
Sound: Mic Poole
Music: Mia Soteriou
Running time: Two hours 50 minutes with one interval .
Box Office: 0870 901 3356
Booking to 30th August 2003
Website: www.rsc.org.uk
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 4th June 2003 Performance at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London SW1 (Tube Station: Piccadilly Circus)
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