After its successful run at the Swan theatre in Stratford, Adrian Noble’s production of Henrik Ibsen’s Brand opened at the Theatre Royal Haymarket on May 29, with Ralph Fiennes starring as the intense and tortured priest of the title role. Tom Bowtell spoke to Adrian to find out how he is using his unique Brand of directorship to bring this notoriously challenging play to life.
Brand is a verse tragedy written by Henrik Ibsen in 1866. It was originally written as a narrative poem and wasn’t performed on stage until 1885. It tells the story of Brand, a priest, who is a devout and unerring follower of God. Steadfast and steely, he refuses to condone any form of moral compromise, even when it leads him to reject his dying mother and forbid his wife from mourning for their son. Not originally intended for performance, Brand poses what Adrian Noble describes as a “terrific challenge” to directors, so what on earth possessed him to finish his artistic directorship of the RSC with such a virtually-impossible project?
“I’ve been wanting to do the play for a long time. I’ve always found it rather astonishing. It’s, well, it’s awesome as a piece. It’s not a comfortable play to sit with. But I find it really inspiring, to be honest, to watch – especially with Ralph playing the part.” If the play has always struck such a chord with him, why has it taken him over 20 years for him to put it on? “It took so long to come together because I was waiting for the right actor. You just can’t do the play without an especially tenacious actor, like Ralph. It’s a tricky role to cast because the priest is a fairly young man, but he has to have the emotional maturity that you’d usually associate with other men – men playing the Lears and the Othellos – and Ralph has that.”
"I’ve been wanting to do the play for a long time. I’ve always found it rather astonishing"
Noble’s effusion about Fiennes is unconstrained and unrehearsed: “It’s great, terrific to work with him, he’s at the height of his powers and a quite extraordinary actor.” Noble even goes so far as to say that he can think of no other actor capable of playing the role – “that’s one of the reasons it has taken so long to get round to putting on the play, we had to wait until our diaries matched up!” So what is it about our Ralph that makes him so unique? “Well, for this part you’ve got to have a sensitivity to moral and spiritual issues and you’ve got to have a real, charismatic, theatre presence. This is not just because of the epic nature of the role but also because the other characters in the play have to be inspired by him, led by him and the audience has to believe that, and even be inspired by him themselves. Ralph also has a fantastic voice, which is absolutely vital for a role as huge as this, the character must hold our interest with his voice alone.”
Adrian Noble directing. Brand emerged from Ibsen’s rage about what he saw as his fellow Norwegian’s lax attitude to the decimation of nearby Schleswig-Holstein during the German-Danish war of 1864. “He thought his countrymen were being flabby” adds Noble, with a delightful curl of the lip. There was, however, nothing remotely paunchy about the vehemence of the playwright's response to the war: “He was so angry with the way his countrymen seemed to be saying ‘well as long as we’re OK, who cares’ that he left his country in disgust, and wrote this play as a kind of call to moral arms to say that there is another way”.
"He thought his countrymen were being flabby"
The character of Brand himself is the vehicle with which Ibsen makes his stark moral point. “Brand is a man who treads an isolated and uncompromising path. He is a priest – although Ibsen always said he could have been anybody – but he is somebody who tries to pursue their calling in an absolutely wholehearted and uncompromising manner. As a priest he makes no concessions to the flimsy sort of religion which was becoming prevalent at that time, and sacrifices everything, his wife, his child and eventually his life to his religious calling.”
Noble is clearly quite obsessed with the dramatic power of this character who is prepared to subjugate every aspect of his personal happiness to his moral calling, and he [Noble] gets uncharacteristically frothy when asked to compare with Shakespeare’s most notorious tortured souls: “Oh it’s right up there! On a level with Hamlet, Lear, Coriolanus. Oh yeah, it’s an amazing, amazing part with an extraordinary breadth of challenges.” These claims of parity with The Bard could be interpreted as mere hyperbole were they not uttered by a man who has been a member of the RSC for 22 years and spent 12 years as its Artistic Director…
One area where Brand differs from Shakespeare (apart from the fact that it was originally written in Norwegian and is three hundred years younger) is the relative lack of theatricality in the text: “it’s interesting because it was originally written as a narrative poem and what I’ve done is not made it overly naturalistic. The play is written without much social realism, no one has supper or a cup of tea, there’s none of the Chekhovian detail of other dramas, and we have very little scenery – although Peter Mckintosh has designed us a simple, but quite extraordinary, set. All of this forces you to concentrate entirely on the characters and the arguments of the play.” Was Noble not even slightly tempted to add in a few sugary concessions to make the play more immediately accessible? “No. It would be too dangerous to do that, and that wasn’t what Ibsen was trying to do. It would have been a cul de sac.” So does he feel that the “terrifically challenging journey” of faithfully producing Brand with all the stark sparsity that Ibsen intended has ended at the right destination? “Well, touch wood, it seems to be working terribly terribly well and the audiences seem to be mad for it. Which is great.”
Noble feels that half a lifetime directing Shakespeare has helped him to make Brand the success it apparently is, but despite the similarities in theme and scope with Shakespeare, he thinks that the piece has even stronger contemporary resonances: “The priest is a fundamentalist, that’s what he is, and the war in Iraq began while we were rehearsing which was very odd, and Fundamentalism was suddenly a rather less remote concept.” So, seeing as Brand ends up childless, wifeless and dead, is the play a criticism of Fundamentalist attitudes? “Well it’s more complicated than that. It shows that you have to understand where these people, these fundamentalists are coming from, rather than saying you will just go off and kill them all.”
"The audiences seem to be mad for it"
The contemporary echoes of this play seem to confirm what a glance at the West End listings suggests: that with The Master Builder, Ghosts, The Lady From The Sea and Brand all performed in London in the first half 2003 Ibsen is, along with Chekhov, the most popular of the 19th Century playwrights in today’s theatre. Why does Noble think that Ibsen’s work has been so enduringly successful? “I think it is because he confronts moral issues in a way that no other playwright really does. It's as simple as that: they’re about subjects that never become irrelevant: take the Ibsen plays I have directed: The Doll’s House – do you leave your husband and your children if your marriage breaks down? The Master Builder – should a 60-year-old man fall in love with a 20-year-old girl? Little Eyolf – what happens to you when your five-year old child dies? This sort of stuff could be straight from today's newspaper, that’s why people go and see those plays, and that’s why I direct them.
Noble admits that he loves Ibsen almost as much as he does Shakespeare and it is clear throughout that his commitment to Brand is as much personal as it is professional. In the early stages of rehearsal he and Fiennes even went on what he calls a “field trip” to Norway, visiting Bergen and then exploring the mountains and infamous fjords of Ibsen’s homeland in order to “try to get a sense of the culture that surrounded Ibsen”. I briefly wonder where he would have ended up had he been directing a stage version of Star Trek. In addition to his passion for Ibsen, Noble has an extra reason to try and make Brand as perfect as possible: his ideas for the show have been gestating and evolving throughout his two decades at the RSC, making the ideal piece with which to bring down the curtain on his time with the company. He is vague about his plans for the future, but I do get the impression that, for now, he is regarding Brand as the apogee of his exploits in straight theatre. He concedes that “at the moment I am concentrating on my work in opera and film”, and although he doesn’t go into specifics about his cinematic projects, I would be overwhelmingly unsurprised if a certain R Fiennes were to pop up in one of his movies at some point: I get the impression that Noble rates him…