In search of Ibsen's essence

His career as the artistic director of the RSC began and now ends with Ibsen. Adrian Noble took Ralph Fiennes, his star in Brand, to seek out the roots of the playwright's power in Norway
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In 1864, Ibsen sailed south from Norway and remained resident abroad for the next 27 years. This willful act of rejection of his country's moral flabbiness, its hypocrisy and its theatrical conservatism lit a creative bonfire that was to transform late-19th-century intellectual and artistic life for ever; the torch that lit it was Brand.

Brand is the fourth of his plays that I have directed, and they seem to have book-ended my time at the RSC. My first production was A Doll's House, in 1981, and it has turned out that Brand is to be my last. These four productions have marked my working life in a particularly vivid and personal way, quite differently from Shakespeare. Shakespeare's plays seem to be continuously re-forming themselves in my mind, and so have provided the principal artistic challenge. Ibsen, a searing moral force, shines a searching light on to anyone who engages with him - actor, director or audience - and so our response is perhaps more personal, more intimate than our response to Shakespeare.

In front of the theatre in Bergen stands a statue of Ibsen, with the owl-eyed expression of a man with a carrot up his arse. But if the public perception of Ibsen is of a stern, conventional, disapproving figure, the reality of a great Ibsen performance is positively subversive.

Husbands and wives would file out of the theatre after Cheryl Campbell's act of self-immolation in A Doll's House, and you could often see palpable discomfort - not just because she leaves her husband, but because she also walks out on her small children. And time and again I would watch the most dangerous pairing of actors, John Wood and Joanne Pearce, enact Ibsen's most shocking play, The Master Builder. A 60-year-old man and a 20-year-old girl construct a wild, erotic "castle in the sky" and willfully destroy themselves in the process.

Little Eyolf is perhaps the most painful of Ibsen's plays, as it deals with the death of a child, but clinically exposes the bare sexual flesh under the skin of a bereaved couple. Audiences would shy away from it and avoid engagement. I sensed that Ibsen had broken a taboo here.

I first became interested in Brand about 20 years ago, through my connection with Michael Elliot, the former artistic director of the Manchester Royal Exchange, when I was working there. I read it and loved it, but held it in my back pocket for many, many years - partly because I didn't really know how to approach it and partly because it's very hard to identify an actor with the range of skills and artistic temperament to play the role. A role that, incidentally, is of Lear-like proportions.

About four years ago, the play resurfaced in my mind as something that I wanted to do, and I realised that Ralph Fiennes, with whom I had worked 10 years earlier, would be an ideal casting. From working with Fiennes on Henry VII, I knew that he had the sort of artistic intelligence, the emotional sensitivity and the spiritual appetite to take on board the issues and moral dilemmas that are at the heart of the play. He is also, of course, the right age, as Brand is a relatively young man who grows older in the course of the play. The actor playing the role has to have extraordinary tenacity as a performer, because it is a vast role. He has to be charismatic and inventive, because almost single-handedly he has to take the audience on a most challenging journey.

Brand is a peculiar play because, famously, it wasn't written to be performed on stage. It has many of the characteristics of a narrative poem, and it doesn't conform to many of the rules of 19th-century drama. It seems at times quite severely to lack connective tissue - particularly in the version we are using. That, however, makes it very exciting to work on, because you have to make bold choices as you're working with a very spare, lean script. On the other hand, it means there's a real onus on the artists involved to fill in the picture for themselves, so Ralph and I felt that it would be really helpful for us to travel to Norway and work on the play in that context.

The trip was a kind of odyssey - we had four or five days travelling and working on the text. We looked at some of the art; we looked at the landscape and crossed fjords, we went on steamers and railways over the mountains but, crucially, we walked. We walked through towns and villages and up the mountains through the narrow strips of agricultural land; through woods and forests and beyond the tree line; up, up, up. It was an extraordinary feeling; we had a sense of real connection with the text, because Brand is a play in which the landscape fulfils a vital function. The mountains, and the very thin strip of land upon which most people live, and the deep fjords - those are physical locations of the drama, but they're also the emblems that Ibsen uses, the iconography of the play. So the climbing of the mountain, the interaction with that landscape, if you like, is crucial in this play, more so than in any of Ibsen's other work (until we get to When We Dead Awaken, in which, again, going right up to the highest peak is central to the play). That experience in Norway gave us a wonderful advantage, a way to relate to the landscape as the characters do.

We also got a taste of what a completely contradictory experience Norway offers. We trudged the streets of Bergen in a constant drizzle, stopping off at one of the many rainwear outlets to kit ourselves out with waterproofs (how does Ralph Fiennes manage to look glamorous in a vast pair of green plastic trousers?) We caught the bus to the reconstruction of a 19th-century village, and we readily imagined how some poor girl could end up face down in the stream because she couldn't bear the claustrophobia, the sexual hypocrisy, the smothering Lutheranism.

We took the charming little train up the mountain through the drizzle to a remote hamlet only to discover that they recognise Ralph even here and want the obligatory photo op, and that the season is about to finish and the ferries have ceased to operate. So to the buses again, and here I got my moment of vanity and pride when the bus driver asked me if I wanted the student rate. I knew leaving the RSC would improve my health; I didn't realise it would lead to complete rejuvenation. And finally, to Ballestrand at sunset, and a lovely Victorian hotel, where next morning we wake to... Eden! Clear blue skies, a soft breeze on the fjord, the most breathtaking mountain views, the dawn of the world.

The days in Norway were spent walking and the evenings in reading the play and talking. Ibsen, it struck me, is unlike other playwrights because his drama progresses in a series of moral dilemmas. He has a unique ability to shape his plays accordingly. Chekhov doesn't do that at all - most of his work comes from the observation of how people behave in social and political situations. Actors like acting in Chekhov not because it is like life, but because it is like film. Audiences, too, have a different relationship with Chekhov, and perhaps the film analogy is relevant there as well. Ibsen, on the other hand, places his characters in a vivid moral situation. This means that the ideas have to be dramatised in a compelling way, but from the mouths of living, feeling human beings. If you can crack this, the play has the potential to engage quite intimately. You are focusing on something that is a matter of life and death.

On returning to England, I soon discovered that Brand is a really hard play to direct. Not all plays are, despite what directors may say. Brand not only needs interpreting, but you have to be constantly vigilant that you are animating the real conflict, the central and not the peripheral. It's also a hard play to rehearse. The major breakthroughs and discoveries require a very high emotional cooking temperature, which is hard to sustain. With Shakespeare you can happily work on the verse for half an hour in a very technical way. With Greek drama you can always do a bit of work on rituals. Not so with Ibsen - it really is all or nothing.

So we devised a series of exercises to help us to get to the bones of a scene. We investigated, using just a few chairs, the moral choices facing the characters, and from here we fed in the emotional, political and social pressures that affect those choices. And so a style emerged, a discipline developed, and the physical production started to take shape. We took real inspiration from its provenance as a dramatic poem, but found a contemporary urgency by exposing ourselves to its savage choices.

As we rehearsed, the war in Iraq began and fundamentalism ceased to be a remote concept. At its best, theatre has the power to tune our moral sensibilities and give us metaphors that help us to pick our way through moral flabbiness. Meanwhile, the bonfire still burns...

'Brand' previews from tonight and opens on 4 June, running to 30 August, at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London SW1 (0870 901 3356)