Goosey Goosey Brander
Brand (National Theatre) Audiences of the Seventies are quite used to productions in which scenes and machines completely steal the show. It is a measure of the decadence of our audiences, that a recent production of Idomeneo at Covent Garden excited no comment even though the singers (who sang divinely) were hounded about the stage by staircases and parapets which occasionally mowed them down. The chorus, toiling about the stage under tons of shaggy drapery, fell up and down the packs of heaving rostra in their platform-soled boots with more noise than the orchestra could have produced if every player had been supplied with a thirtytwo-inch cymbal and told to do his damnedest. The climax came when the demon of the decor arose from the deep and ate a large number of the dramatis personae, only to be killed offstage by the intrepid Janet Baker, who continued to leap lightly from one peripatetic chunk of architecture to another.
Faced by the possibilities of Ibsen's Brand, the National Theatre is to be commended for extraordinary restraint in resisting the temptation to have the characters terrorised by the icy peaks and avalanches which are the play's milieu. The lights came up upon a jig-saw of rostra which were obviously meant to surge up and down and about, whenever a scene change was called for, and before anything else had happened they promptly did so, even to the extent of exhaling mist, as if Norwegian weather was unique in that it came out of the earth rather than inflicting itself upon it.
The set was an exquisite modern jewel by Ralph Koltai, laminated sheets of various wondrous substances suggesting cloisonné . ice and cliffs of chrysoprase. Appearances notwithstanding, one would have been prepared to believe that all was storm-tossed and bitter cold, if only the actors had not insisted in having nearly all their conversations out of doors, sitting about on glaciers and icefloes as if they had been white wool. When the nacreous surfaces parted to breathe stage smoke, the effect was not so much arctic as of a Turkish bath.
More effective than the lapidary set in suggesting an icy situation was the music of Harrison Birtwhistle, which came to us through the 'Tape Realisation' of Jonty Harrison. The electronic bOoms and sighs and whistles did suggest the massive intercourse of the elements 'like noises in a swound' in a way that the relatively noiseless moving stage could not, nor the actors neither, seeing that their director, Christopher Morahan, had mercifully kept them from foot-stamping, finger-blowing, rib-slapping and so forth.
To dwell so long upon the mere spectacle of Brand would be inexcusable, if there had been much more to this production than that. To discuss King Lear, a play to which Brand has been compared, in terms of the boards beneath the old king's feet and the storm noises off, would clearly insult both bard and players. For all I know, Ibsen's play may be genuinely sublime, but the National Theatre and the translator Geoffrey Hill, have not considered themselves bound to transmit anything so taxing to their present audience.
In a note to his text, Mr Hill tells us: Although my version runs to more than five thousand lines it is still not a complete rendering of Ibsen's text. Those who are able to compare my words with the original Norwegian will detect numerous instances where lines, and indeed whole passages, have been omitted, amplified or transposed .. .
Like Ibsen's, my rhyme-scheme ranges from couplets to more freely interwoven patterns but I have not tried to follow the threads in his texture. I have rung the changes in metre and rhyme to achieve variety of pace and tone in the English verse; and have worked by intuition rather than by textual precedent.
Actually, Mr Hill's is a half-rhyme scheme, which on stage is barely perceptible, and in the printed version slightly suggestive of the comic. Dimeter, tritneter and tetrameter are also associated in English with comic poetry, children's verse and doggerel; it would take a poetic talent of considerable magnitude to overcome the tittupping we associate with Goosey Goosey Gander, half-rhymes and all.
Apparently Mr Hill cannot himself read Nonvegian, for whatever resemblance his play may have to Ibsen is by way of a literal translation prepared for him by Inga-Stina Ewbank, which, one presumes, if not poetic, was comprehensible. What Mr Hill makes-of it, may be gathered from an example, Brand's words in extremis, the climax of the poem which Mrs Ewbank compares to Paradise Lost.
I see the mountain and the stair, clear through the mist; the pure ascent, the void that is the firmament.
It is the Ice Church,..
A thousand miles away, where the earth forever smiles, beneath the heavens' azure roof I see the kingdoms of true life... (He starts to weep.)
Such lines cannot strike upon the English ear with dignity and resonance; only, in Robert Stephens's extraordinary performance as the Mayor, where they were flung about and dashed to pieces by a very good actor's determination to make sense' of his performance, was the verse form of Brand not a handicap. The loose patterning could be colloquial, and was sayable in actors' terms, but it could not sound the chord of tragedy or transcend the merely logical.
In this form, Brand had to be understood in logical terms, if audiences deprived of the colour and weight that his readers thrilled to in 1866 are to have any satisfaction especially if the actor chosen to play Brand is Michael Bryant, a wonderful actor when subtlety is required, but quite lacking the heroic, operatic dimension in which Brand must be played, if it is to be played at all. To cast an actor who can play scepticism in a thousand shades as a fanatic may have been inspired; to one section of the hapless audience it appeared, as Brand himself, merely perverse.
The poem came to Norway in 1866 invested with extrinsic importance, and was taken up by patriots and intellectuals as the voice of the social uproar out of which a new Norway would be born. It was not seen on stage in Norway until 1904; from the beginning of its stage career it seems to have been valued as much for its ambiguity as anything else, for Brand may be played perfectly coherently as hero or anti-hero, and his
personal crusade for a new life, as a revolt against middle-class mores, or the rule of compromise, or qualunquismo, or, on the other hand, as hideous fanaticism, inhuman egotism, absurd solipsism, tragic intellectual arrogance.
The only Brand who does not make sense is the Brand who cannot seduce his hearers, whether because his language does not incandesce or because his performance lacks histrionic scope. The National Theatre Brand is deficient in both respects.