He is at face value quite unsympathetic but that's too simple a judgement. Brand is a tough nut to crack as a character because Ibsen has written a very extreme man who has a hard and often really tough and merciless commitment to his Christian faith but I found that there was a poetry and an epic quality in the play that I liked. The ideas really appealed to me - just to do with life and faith and the way you live your life. Brand's brand of faith is very tough but there are moments in the play when you can be inspired by how he expresses his belief. At other times you could be repelled by it.
He is a man who is trying to articulate his beliefs not just through language but through the way he lives his life. When I read the play, I thought that Brand had similarities to Coriolanus who is often thought of as a difficult, unlikeable and unsympathetic protagonist.
I think that Ibsen deliberately confronted us with this very extreme intellect and spirit but, as his wife says about him, "a deep well of love exists in this man" and you do see moments of huge compassion in him. Ibsen sets up his psychological background very astutely because it is clear that Brand was unloved by his parents and is distrustful of the world. He says: "What the world calls love I neither know nor want" but just before saying that he has admitted that the love of his wife is one of the best things that has come into his life. So he is suppressing his own compassion and humanity all the time and for me that makes him tragic.
When was your last season at the RSC and what did you take away from it?
1990-91 when I played Troilus, Edmund the Bastard in King Lear and Berowne in Love's Labour's Lost. In my first season (1988-9), when I played Henry VI in the Plantagenets series, I felt very connected to the character of Henry.
When did you last work with Adrian Noble and why do you like working with him as a director?
I met Adrian when we worked together on The Plantagenets. He cast me as Henry VI, also a very devout man but completely different from Brand, lacking any of his anger. Brand has a warlike temperament. His wife says "Your god is a warrior god" and Brand talks about waging war - not a war in which he is killing people but a war of idealism, of belief.
Adrian and I connected very well on The Plantaganets and I remember that I felt that he allows you the space in which to make mistakes, to experiment, to get your hands dirty. He gives you a lot of rope which can sometimes be quite scary because he leaves it up to you to find your way. Other directors can be much more on top of you. Adrian seems very laid back but then suddenly he is there, shaping and tailoring. So you feel in safe hands and that the production is supporting you and then you can take risks. And although not everything you try works, something good can come out of it.
Did you take away anything useful from your research trip to Norway with Adrian Noble last year?
I really wanted to go to Norway to see the landscape. Ibsen describes the mountains, fjords and valleys. I wanted to look down a fjord and see what Ibsen describes. We went on a long hike up a mountain, above a fjord, and suddenly had that sense of elation that a mountain can bring out of you. It is easy to be inspired by the height of the mountains in Norway but also humbled. At the same time as you are lifted and exalted, you are made to feel that you are nothing. Edmund Hillary said something similar when talking about why he climbed mountains - he said that he felt "called" up a mountain It gives you a sense of perspective about the world which is one of the first things that struck me when I read the play.
We recognised Ibsen's description of walking up to the heavens and of looking down to the houses below and seeing human habitation and ordinary, everyday life. We had wonderful weather, clear blue skies and we could see for miles. Brand talks about being up in the mountain or of going down to the valley, which he is reluctant to do, and he also talks about valleys that don't get any sun and you could certainly see sides of mountains that probably got very little light at all because they were completely north facing. Brand chooses to live in a house that gets no sun, no light. And when you can imagine where that sort of house can be, it's very daunting. It's also very useful to be able to carry a physical memory of what it is like to have walked those very long distances. Things which one could have imagined but since we had the time to visit, we went and I do feel it made a difference. I feel that I hold those images in my head. There is no scenery as such in our play - the mountains are in the imaginations of the actors so to have seen it so that the image is really strong in my mind is very helpful.
Are you doing any other preparation, physical or mental, for the role?
Keep fit - learn the lines.
What memories will it bring back, spending time in Stratford?
Being tired, being exhilarated by the work, sometimes frustrated if you felt you weren't giving of your best or hadn't cracked the part.
One of the things I always liked was the thrill of hearing an audience respond at the end of a performance of a Shakespeare play. Everyone is always questioning Shakespeare's place in our lives - should he be on school syllabuses, is he any use, is he redundant, what's the point of him today? But in performance, suddenly there is a connection to a modern audience. They have gone on a journey. They won't have understood all the words but they will have understood the fundamental drama and characters will have come through. Shakespeare is contemporary - not always linguistically but in the things he addresses and I do remember feeling the thrill that this great language was still connecting to audiences in a contemporary context.
How do you think a serious, classic play like BRAND will go down with the West End audiences?
For many people, I suppose, Ibsen is demanding drama but a lot of people are hungry for that. I have faith in the audiences that want to be challenged, to engage in ideas. BRAND has no song and dance numbers but it is not a dry, intellectual piece. I wouldn't be doing it if I didn't think it has huge dramatic power and I think it's the production's job to unlock that. Certainly the part of Brand, on the page, is a very dramatic figure. And the text is very accessible. It deals with issues of faith and I do think that you cannot fail to be affected by the Christ story. Ibsen said that Brand could have been an architect or a politician. It's simply about a man of vision, a passionate, burning vision which takes no prisoners but is also inspiring and I think that if that visionary quality of Brand can come through and the audience takes that journey with him then the play will connect.
They have to be alert to Brand's faults and to the resistible things that he says and does but he is a human being struggling to make people .... better, I suppose. What Ibsen couldn't bear in his countrymen was any sense of slothfulness or lack of commitment to a vision or a way of life. In one of Brand's speeches he says "It isn't love of pleasure that is destroying us, it would be better if it were. Enjoy yourself if you will, but be consistent, do it all the time. Not one thing one day and another the next". Brand loathes what he calls compromise - a little bit of this, a little bit of that. He thinks it neuters you and apparently Ibsen was a quiet self-contained man who, when he had had a bit to drink, would suddenly come out with these very strong, very hard points of view. He apparently said "Brand is me in my best moments" and I think that Ibsen thought that his best moments were when he was being an angry man at the dinner table late at night with a couple of bottles of wine inside him. But people did say he was mesmeric. He would suddenly come through with great passion.
There's a bit of Brand in repellent characters like Hitler and then there is a bit of him in William Blake or Wordsworth - this vision of the total unity of man and his world and an ecstasy which is joyful, the going towards the light. I hope that audiences will respond to those visionary and inspirational qualities in Brand. But then there is the other side of Brand which pushes people to risk their lives and demands extreme things of people. One of the key things in the play is the notion of sacrifice. Brand says: "If you give all you have but not your life, you give nothing".
© EL STEPHO
Added to the RF Reading Room on September 10, 2003