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As fanatical antiheroes go, Ibsen's obsessive Brand exists a breed apart, so why shouldn't he played by that rare actor, Ralph Fiennes, who gives the impression that he would walk across hot coals for his art?

Brand - Ralph Fiennes Agnes - Claire Price Ejnar - Alistair Petrie Mayor - Oliver Cotton Gerd - Laura Rees Mother - Susan Engel Doctor/Provost - Alan David

As fanatical antiheroes go, Ibsen’s obsessive Brand exists a breed apart, so why shouldn’t he played by that rare actor, Ralph Fiennes, who gives the impression that he would walk across hot coals for his art?

Fiennes has long made plain his commitment to the theater, often forsaking movies for an extended stretch so he can immerse himself in the weightier depths of the dramatic repertoire. But even by Fiennes’ own merciless standards, Ibsen’s rarely performed verse play is a daunting task that finds the actor paired with his onetime Royal Shakespeare Co. director, Adrian Noble, in Noble’s final production as RSC a.d. (The two men last worked together in 1988 on the history play cycle “The Plantagenets.”)

How nice it would be to report their reteaming is a triumph, especially in a London season unusually rich in Ibsen, with the Almeida’s “Lady From the Sea” selling out and the Patrick Stewart “Master Builder” still to come. But the fact is that “Brand” commands respect without admiration; it talks up to an audience, which is always to be commended, without eliciting the slightest affection in return.

Perhaps that is to be expected, given the title character, a visionary yet deluded priest who is willing to sacrifice his child, his wife and, it would seem, eventually his sanity on the altar of religious calling. (One can imagine countless contemporary equivalents of Brand in any context or community where fundamentalism holds sway.)

But coming from a director whose RSC stagings of both “Little Eyolf” (1997) and, preeminently, “Master Builder” (1989, with John Wood) remain benchmark Ibsen ventures of my experience, “Brand” seems underpopulated and skimpily designed (by Peter McKintosh, in high-Ikea mode) and somewhat noxious to behold, as if the endeavor as a whole were taking its cue from the sullen, jaw-extended gaze with which Fiennes keeps staring down the audience. One can imagine this production representing its own directorial act of atonement, following Noble’s “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” (Talk about extremes.) And yet, how keen can a theater public be to pay top dollar for expiation? Not for the first time, a play about a “hard” man — the adjective is frequently applied to Brand — proves hard going.

Ibsen wrote “Brand” in 1865 in Italy, inspired, apparently, by the Michelangelo frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. And there is something similarly outsized if not exactly noble about the eponymous Lutheran, who is quick to remind everyone within earshot of the fjord that “living is an art,” even if one that, in his perceived sinfulness, Brand is doomed to do badly. Serving the “great master” that is God, Brand does considerably less well by human beings, whom he treats coolly and with contempt or, at best, indifference. A self-described “chastiser of the age” existing high above “the tumult of the people,” Brand is a kindred spirit of sorts to Fiennes’ erstwhile (and superlative) Coriolanus, another intransigent, fierce-eyed personage with mother problems of his own.

As for Brand’s family life, his sharply spoken mother (Susan Engel) and amazingly patient and kindly spouse (Claire Price, excellent) count for little faced with Brand’s own belief that “the best love is hate.” In the end, Brand, raving and alone, is heading Christ-like toward the mountaintop, a fevered, bloodied figure (check out the stigmata) whose ascent ever-upwards — shades here of “Master Builder,” written nearly three decades later — virtually demands that he must fall.

Fiennes’ commitment to the part is so total that one wishes it induced catharsis instead of cumulative irritation that the performer’s best efforts are being scuppered around him. Price’s wifely warmth and Peter Mumford’s painterly lighting can’t dispel the drear of an abstraction-heavy landscape that surely cries out for more, in visual terms, than a high-walled, circular wooden set that parts for a climactic coup de theatre that is sound designer Mic Pool’s alone. And the RSC, of all organizations, should be able to swell the ranks in order to suggest a true populace turning away from Brand, as a later Ibsen character, “An Enemy of the People’s” Dr. Stockmann, will experience for himself. Or has the company’s post-Barbican surrender to the commercial marketplace led, in turn, to a cheapening of resources?

Small wonder after all that Fiennes seems to be going it solo in a way that even the hubristic, essentially solitary Brand wouldn’t sanction. “His calling is his soul,” it is said of Brand, and one could say the same of a star who is never more galvanic than when he comes home to the stage. What a shame, then, that he should be landed in a “Brand” that seems trapped mid-glacier, playing a man boastful of “crush(ing) mountains” in a production still at boot camp.


Theater Royal, Haymarket, London; 895 Seats; £40 ($66) Top

Production: A Theater Royal, Haymarket Prods. and Stanhope Prods. presentation of the Royal Shakespeare Co. production of the Ibsen play in two acts in a translation by Michael Meyer. Directed by Adrian Noble.

Creative: Sets and costumes, Peter McKintosh; lighting, Peter Mumford; sound, Mic Pool; original music, Mia Soteriou. Opened June 4, 2003; reviewed June 9. Running time: 2 HOURS, 45 MIN.

Cast: Brand - Ralph Fiennes Agnes - Claire Price Ejnar - Alistair Petrie Mayor - Oliver Cotton Gerd - Laura Rees Mother - Susan Engel Doctor/Provost - Alan DavidWith: Karen Traynor, Clifford Rose, Ian Drysdale, Jim Creighton, James Curran, Sarah Everard, Jane Guernier, Colin Haigh, Jennifer McEvoy, Sidney Livingstone, Oliver Golding, Steven Williams.

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