We live in a world of politicians who make uncompromising phrases such as “The Lady is not for turning”, “There is no alternative” and “No pain - no gain”, the common currency of political exchange. We even have a Prime Minister who, speaking of the war in Iraq, spoke of his “complete and total resolve”. In this context Ibsen’s hero/anti-hero Brand, the firebrand Lutheran preacher who believes that life demands ‘All or nothing’ and compromise is moral cowardice and leads to society’s destruction would seem pertinent to a modern audience.
The programme notes inform us that Brand has been played as a fascist leader striving to establish a new race and realm that will cure man of his sickness, or as a revolutionary showing the way to the promised land. In a 1907 production in pre-revolutionary Russia - where the masses were longing for liberation from tyranny - the theatre audience stood up and applauded in rapt attention as Brand threw the keys of the Church into the river and led his flock into the freedom of the mountains.
Sadly, Adrian Noble’s production is pedestrian and lame and fails to capture Brand as an embodiment of longing and hope and how such longing can lead to disaster and misery. In his production Brand is an unimpressive religious zealot who continually totters on the chasm of insanity and looks more like a deranged religious sadist than a messianic archetype.
Ralph Fiennes plays Brand as if the character is nothing more radical than a jaded zealot rather than a revolutionary firebrand who dreams of creating a new man and destroying the old god of compromise. His face, which hardly changes throughout the show, is one long grimace of misery and bitterness, and his posture continuously stoops making him look defeated and listless. He makes Brand appear like a manic-depressive whose heart never rejoices in his dream for a new humanity.
It seems incredulous to believe that this deluded cruel man could have such a strong hold upon his disciple and wife Agnes and his parishioners. Fiennes’ Brand has moments of self-doubt about the path he has chosen, but because of his lack of vision they appear false, and leave you with little doubt as to which action he will choose. This results in the play being predictable, as you know each cruel demand will be followed by another.
The play begins with Brand travelling with a father who is desperate to reach his dying daughter, but to do so he must risk his life to trek through the snow and ice. When the journey becomes too hazardous the father refuses to go on and pleads with Brand to turn back. Brand pours scorn upon the father’s love asking him what kind of love is this that will not give everything for his daughter? Love, Brand insists, demands “All or nothing”.
This uncompromising gospel of ‘all or nothing’ is a gospel where love is earned and one must prove worthy of it. It is a love of the will, not of the heart. It is a love that sacrifices emotion in order to worship a jealous God. In following this narrow path one is redeemed and the heart made pure and single-pointed by destroying all emotions that are not centred on God. In such a heart love will not flee its duty and a new world can be created.
It is this stern faith that means Brand declines to visit his dying mother and give her the last rites because she refuses to renounce her wealth. It demands that he allow his son to die rather than leave his cold and barren parsonage, and it demands that his wife not be allowed to mourn the death of her child.
Claire Price as Brand’s wife Agnes, gives a touching performance as she struggles with faith and her obedience to it. One feels her pain as she is torn between her grief and her devotion to her husband and the uncompromising God they worship. Susan Engel also gives a strong performance as Brand’s mother, she talks with devotion about ‘my treasure, my child of pain’ referring not to Brand but to her money! And she cuts to the core of Ibsen’s drama when despite her son’s callousness towards her and her acute awareness of her own weaknesses she asks “Why was my soul made flesh if love of the flesh is death to the soul?”
The stage design by Peter McKintosh, like the production as a whole, is dull and drab. The backdrop of stark wooden slats that curve to form a semi-circle looks like a gigantic wooden barrel! There is no attempt to portray the Norwegian landscape that the play constantly refers to. When we are treated to the use of midst and lights to create a dream like world where Brand has his mountain top vision in which he hears a voice proclaim “He is the God of love”, it is all too little, too late.
(Production photos by Manuel Harlan/© RSC).
What other critics had to say.....
MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "Ralph Fiennes's finest hour on stage." He goes on to say, "A monumental evening." NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Fiennes fails to ignite Ibsen's rare firebrand." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "The role of Brand certainly plays to Fiennes’s strength as an actor." CHARLES SPENCER for DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "A glorious occasion: daring, deeply felt, powerfully affecting and blessed with a truly tremendous performance from Ralph Fiennes." RHODA KOENIG for THE INDEPENDENT says, "...this great play and the intelligence of its lead actor." ALASTAIR MACAULAY for THE FINANCIAL TIMES says, "The production still doesn't quite convince me that Brand is good theatre." MICHAEL COVENEY for THE DAILY MAIL says, "Fiennes grapples with the role of Brand, and comes off slightly the worse for wear."
External links to full reviews from popular press