Brand, Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London

Fiennes brings force and grace to Ibsen's harsh, tormented hero
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The Independent Culture

Casting an actor of such extreme gorgeousness as Ralph Fiennes in the title role of Brand somewhat undermines the plausibility and point of Ibsen's tormented hero.

Gorgeous men - as Fiennes is, despite a prison haircut and a hunter's crouch - do not generally renounce the world to wander it, preaching the word. Nor does the beautiful Agnes's desertion of her fiancé for Brand seem like a triumph for his faith. Fiennes hardly has to risk his life, as Brand does, for female devotion - he could just recite the telephone directory.

This casting, however, makes Brand's harsh asceticism not only bearable but compelling. Not that Fiennes ever uses his voice seductively, or plays the romantic hero. Lines that could be ringing declarations are spoken quietly, as if Brand wishes to convince himself; on the two occasions he delivers a fatal "no," we hear, instead of firmness, submission and regret.

Brand, whose parents never loved him - when his mother speaks, caressingly, of "my treasure, my child of pain," she is talking about her money - has rationalised their coldness into a belief that love must be deserved. This wreaks a terrible vengeance on the mother, whom he denounces and spurns, but Brand is the one who suffers most, sacrificing his child, his wife, and finally himself to the idea that "the victory of victories is to lose everything".

Adrian Noble has trimmed Michael Meyer's eloquent translation, but Brand still takes nearly three hours. They fly.

Unnervingly for those in the stalls, actors stalk down the aisles and through the side doors. Alan David, the only actor with a Norwegian accent - a good one - is excellent as the doctor, one of Ibsen's well-meaning busybodies who leave corpses in their wake.

The female parts, though, are weak. As Agnes, Claire Price is embarrassingly below the level of Fiennes, her demonstrations of innocence and anguish too twitchy and calculated.

Laura Rees as Gerd, the mad mountain girl with the mystic connection to Brand - her father was a rejected suitor of Brand's mother - is too slender and pretty for the role, her voice too shallow and genteel. Her costume - artfully distressed layers rather than authentic-looking rags - strikes a false note, as do the clothes of all the mountain villagers, whose garments seem to have been cut from the same few bolts of slate-coloured cloth.

The stark set is dull - a wall of vertical grey slats that curves in a semicircle. The celestial voice at the end sounds about as impressive as that of the Wizard of Oz.

Yet none of this matters next to the mountain that is this great play and the intelligence of its lead actor. There are many times when Ibsen's statements of human error and longing strike hard enough to make us gasp, and Fiennes never fails to send them winging to us with force and grace. Through the stale, perfumed air of the West End, Brand blows like a frigid, bracing wind.