Brand

Henrick Ibsen
RSC at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket
(2003)

Brand is one of many loners that Ibsen specialised in writing about. Like his spiritual brothers in John Gabriel Borkman, An Enemy of the People and The Master Builder he rails against a society that he believes to be wrong-thinking and evil.

In many ways though, he is far closer to Peer Gynt and, one assumes, the playwright, a man who has problems with his mother, the townsfolk who do not always appreciate his finer instincts and ultimately the world.

Ralph Fiennes gives a superb, drawling performance as the Christ-like Brand, a preacher who may be visionary or charlatan but is a driven ascetic who, like Abraham, will give up his son and subsequently his wife Agnes (played by Claire Price) for his beliefs.

In an age where religious fundamentalism is rife in certain parts of society, it is instructive to see how it could operate in Norway 150 years ago. A charismatic figure who shares some qualities of Rasputin was able to win over local townsfolk in a battle between his unorthodox church and the state represented by the mayor (Oliver Cotton).

This production is given great life by director Adrian Noble, whose production qualities are extremely high. Within a dark set, designed by Peter McKintosh, that looks like the inside of a barrel and possibly reflects the way in which Brand is trapped fighting an inner battle within himself, life gets worse and worse for the anti-hero. The lighting from Peter Mumford is stunning, almost literally as darkness gives way to a bright, potentially redemptive ending; and Mic Pool's sound system is never short on decibels when they are needed.

The highlight of this production, though, is an excellent performance from yet another film star on the London stage. Sometimes, one wonders whether producers believe that they have achieved their aim when they have enticed a big name into a West End theatre and performance is immaterial. In this case, Adrian Noble and the RSC are lucky enough to have a great actor giving a tremendous performance in a dark, brooding role. While he is well supported by the rest of the cast, few apart from Miss Price have more than cameo roles.

Whether you want to stare at a celebrity, learn about the dark side of life or see a tremendous performance in a high quality production, go and see Brand.

A word of warning: like the recent revival of Strindberg's Dance of Death, if you are depressed before you go into the theatre to watch Brand, you might well be suicidal by the interval.

This review originally appeared on Theatreworld in a slightly different version.

Philip Fisher