Rogues & Vagabonds

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…

Archive Theatre Review • BRAND • RSC • Theatre Royal Haymarket • 2003

English: The Haymarket Theatre in 2008. Use fr...

The Haymarket Theatre in 2008. K. B. Thompson (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ralph Fiennes does a great line in tortured souls: pondering the pointlessness of existence as Ivanov at The Almeida a couple of years ago, his brow equally furrowed as the ruthless concentration camp commandant in Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. His latest incarnation as the eponymous Brand at the Haymarket Theatre, may just be his most troubled individual yet.

Trapped in an unyielding religious fervour, Brand, a determined Lutheran pastor, presides over the death of his son, wife and mother, and alienates his entire congregation rather than relinquishing one jot of moral rectitude.

Previous interpretations of Ibsen’s morality play have seen Brand symbolise anything from right wing fanaticism to honest resistance to state corruption. It is testament to the playwright’s cunning that Brand could easily have been a politician or even an artist grappling with — or imposing — spiritual mediocrity, depending on the mood of the times.

Adrian Noble‘s valedictory production for the RSC — a truncated version of Michael Meyer’s translation — opts for a more ambiguous approach. Fiennes, effectively discarding his film star good looks in favour of an unsightly crew cut, a thrusting jaw line and a dysfunctional demeanour, lurches around the fjords gurning like Leonard Rossiter’s Rigsby — on Peter McKintosh’s imposing metal set there’s even a hint of rising damp — snarling disapproval in all directions.

Fiennes’ Brand is definitely a man with a mission. Arriving in a small fishing community he is persuaded by the townsfolk to become their spiritual leader, and resolves to drive out every last vestige of moral weakness and ambiguity.

He is obviously a damaged figure, and a telling reunion with his mother (the excellently misanthropic Susan Engel) gives some indication why. She is equally as implacable as her repressed son, and there is clearly little love lost between them.

Fiennes’ performance bestrides the production like a granite colossus, and it is a credit to the rest of the cast that they compete on equal terms. In the first half, characters don’t so much enter scenes as pay homage to Fiennes’ Brand from the auditorium before tentatively entering his world.

After the interval, Brand — having married his mesmerized acolyte Agnes, played with energetic piety by Claire Price — wages war on the corrupt Mayor (a garrulous Oliver Cotton), and discards the advice of Alan David’s pragmatic Welsh doctor to soften his approach.

His world becomes increasingly strangulated though, and, devoid of warmth and light, his ‘all or nothing’ philosophy begins to wither. He refuses his dying mother the sacrament, sacrifices his son’s life to his pious duty, then — with catastrophic results — forbids his wife to grieve. His consequent demise, engulfed by an enormous avalanche, comes as something of a relief, death being for him the only possible release from the vagaries and disappointments of ordinary life.

Punctuated by wintry dissonances on a folksy violin, Noble’s strenuously monochrome production, placed before a tall semi-circular metal enclosure and lit with considerable subtlety by Peter Mumford, never for a second lets us off the hook. It captures not only the harshness of the Norwegian landscape but the desperation of a lost people yearning for moral guidance. The pity for them is that their messiah is incapable of comprehending anything but the strictest adherence to the scriptures.

It is only at the end, as the snows come crashing down, that the imprisoning metal edifice is lifted and Brand is crushed on a bare stage flooded with white light. ‘I am the God of love!’ booms an authoritative voice from the heavens. Shame he didn’t think of sharing this insight with his hapless representative a little earlier…

‘Your kingdom is too big for me’ pleads Agnes, before ostensibly suffocating in her husband’s particular brand of fire and brimstone. Brand’s personal tragedy is that, though he is moved by her small, human preoccupations, he is incapable of bending his philosophy to embrace them.

John Biggins © June 2003

Originally published 06-06-03

Brand opened at the Haymarket Theatre on 04-06-03 and continued until 30-08-03.

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