A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions

A powerful production of Ibsen’s lesser-known early work with Ralph Fiennes’ tour de force acting as Brand makes this a must-see.  Developed as a play in 1885 from his prose poem, “Brand” was inspired by Greek tragedy, in which the protagonist, backed by a chorus, is confronted by individuals offering him choices, attempting in vain to persuade him to change his unrelenting views.

Resembling the distant mountain crags at the base of a symbolic set of wood slats, now green, now black, Fiennes’ Brand stands with fists clenched or buried in his pockets, legs akimbo, turned-down mouth, eyes glaring beneath close-cropped hair.   Describing himself as a “mission preacher,” he travels the harsh terrain, urging his countrymen to rebel against their comfortable ways and old, paternalistic God and to accept his vision of the deity as a courageous warrior demanding from them “all or nothing.”

As the play opens, Brand is symbolically struggling through Norway’s dangerous mountain ways, with ice cracking under his feet, heading towards a crevass, as older heads warn him to turn back and to avoid an avalanche. Complaining that they are dying of starvation, the people are told “God has scourged you with the whip of death,”  If they have no courage, he warns them, they are not worthy of salvation.

When the sun appears, Brand encounters an old school friend dancing and singing with a beautiful young girl, Agnes (Claire Price).  She is smitten by Brand’s dynamism, and, as his flock refuse to join him in a boat  to cross threatening waters, only Agnes, inspired, volunteers to accompany him.

A mad young girl on the mountain warns against attacks by the dangerous trolls and the Satan-like hawk, and points out that the church in his village is old and ugly, while the ice-church at the top of the mountain is large and beautiful. Nearing his gray birthplace, Brand remarks that it seems smaller, and recalls a lonely childhood.

 Another encounter is with his mother (Susan Engel), as tough and unrelenting as he is.  Her sin, he reminds her, is that of greed, from which she must repent or die damned.  He remembers his horror as a child seeing her rob his dead father. The Mayor, a devotee of tradition, senses that Brand is a trouble-maker and attempts in vain to keep him from settling in his hometown. The two men declare war.

 Although there is talk of going “south,” the characters never do so, and the harshness of the setting reflects Brand and his God.  Peter McKintosh’s set  reinforces the symbolism, with the shiny stage floor  resembling ice on which one must tread carefully, the green slats at times suggesting trees, through which light can peer, or darkened by Peter Mumford’s lighting, becoming a black interior, in which Brand cries, at the end of the first act, “Jesus, show me the light.”

 Three years later Brand and Agnes are married and have a child.  In the most painful sequence in the play, she is persuaded by Brand that to truly love God, she must give up all – including their son, who dies.  Reminding her, “was I not a priest before I was a father?” Brand insists that she follow his credo, that to serve God one must give “all or nothing.” He orders her to give away the baby’s clothes, which she has treasured, and to close the shutters against the Christmas candles she lit in hope that the baby might see them from his grave. Now his “all or nothing” belief is turned on Brand himself, as Agnes reminds him that he must now choose: will he truly give “all” and make the final sacrifice – Agnes herself?  He will.  Agnes dies. Freedom of choice is desirable, suggests Ibsen, but warns of danger if the wrong choice is made.  In this scene Agnes represents love and humanity, while Brand lacks both.

 Brand’s dying mother sends for him to give her the last rites, but he refuses to come until she agrees to give “all” -- the money she has scrimped and saved over the years.  This she refuses to do, and he refuses to attend her.   When she dies, Brand inherits the considerable fortune she would not relinquish, even though it meant damnation.   He will, however, use it to build a big, new church in the village. The mayor declares Brand has won, telling him “you have the people on your side.”   Now the Mayor welcomes the new building for the town, saving the money he would have spent on a combination poorhouse and jail.

Although the language is poetic, Ibsen’s condemnation of restrictive social conventions is outspoken in his characterization of the hypocritical mayor and that of other public officials.  Their holding onto their comforts, rather than sacrificing for the greater good, their greed, and their suspicion of Brand as a threat, all come to a head on the day of dedication of the new church.  The people have flocked to support now-rich  Brand.  But he realizes that the newly built church is the same as the old church, and he mounts the rostrum to exhort the village people to abandon their old, comfortable ways and strive for a hard new life.

 If you thought Fiennes as Brand had reached the acting heights already, you were mistaken.  There is even more. This amazing actor has resources of power he now unleashes, as he preaches at the people, working them up into a frenzy, as entranced, they wave their arms about their heads and shout his name in unison.  Director Adrian Noble is to be commended both for his work with the individual actors, all of them excellent, and also for the choral crowd scenes.  Noble  is attuned to Ibsen’s command of theatricality as this scene mounts in tension, with the people rushing off at the end, following Brand.

But as they ascend the mountain, they cannot bear the hardships in this replay of the opening scene.  Not finding a land of milk and honey, they turn against Brand and stone him.  In the final scene, stumbling and bleeding, he enters alone.  His impassioned final soliloquy questions his beliefs and his choices, and he hears a voice from above declaring the importance of love.  Brand’s final encounter is with the mad girl.  She remarks that the palms of his hands are bleeding as if they had had nails in them, and that the blood on his forehead might have been made by a crown of thorns.  To shoot the Satan-hawk, she fires a rifle, something to be avoided in mountains piled deep with snow. The play  concludes with a deafening sound as the ice cracks, and the wood panels lift to reveal a dazzling white avalanche.