Henrik Ibsen's "Brand", 1975, by Director Arnolds Liniņš (1930–1998) at the Dailes Theatre
The legend of Henrik Ibsen’s “Brand” (Brands) at the Dailes Theatre lives on. Director Arnolds Liniņš and his creative team were able to transform one of the most difficult plays of all time into an artistically innovative, yet coherent masterpiece for the contemporary theatregoer.
Ilmārs Blumbergs’s (1943–2016) scenography, Modris Tenisons’s (1945) movement directing, Raimonds Pauls’s (1936) music and Juris Strenga’s (1937) actorship have gone down in theatre history as examples of the highest caliber.
In terms of its aesthetic quality, the production echoed the latest trends in European theatre. Were it not for the Soviet regime, the team could have taken it abroad and received international acclaim.
The main character in Norwegian playwright Henrik Johan Ibsen’s (1828–1906) “Brand” is a young and idealistic clergyman who believes that Christianity and Christians have lost their power through excessive compromise. The young minister strongly believes in people’s will and lives by the motto “everything or nothing”.
Because of his moral standards, Brand refuses to accept compromises and is willing to sacrifice even his mother, son and wife for principle’s sake. Brand gains a following and builds a large church. On its consecration day, he realises that it’s not the right place to seek God and invites the crowd to follow him into the mountains. Gradually, the parishioners lose their courage and return to the valley, leaving the lonely Brand to continue his search for God. At the end of the play, an avalanche kills Brand.
Director Liniņš and his assistant Kārlis Auškāps (1947) gathered a strong team of professionals for the 1975 production of “Brand” at the Dailes Theatre – scenographer Ilmārs Blumbergs, movement director Modris Tenisons and composer Raimonds Pauls. Actors Harijs Liepiņš (1927–1998) and Juris Strenga shared the lead role, while Olga Dreģe (1938) and Ausma Kantāne (1941) took turns to play Brand’s wife Agnes. All in all, a cast of almost 30 actors took part.
Neither the scenography, nor the costumes, nor the physical language were designed to reflect the time at which the events took place, their geographical location or the social belonging of its heroes. Instead, the stage design and its elements created a philosophical world model.
Without any elements of conventionality, Blumbergs’s scenography revealed the true idea behind the play. At the centre of the dark, black-clad stage was a large, irregular, quadrilateral platform, which the actors moved at different intensities. The platform acted as a metaphor for Brand’s internal spiritual life, in which lows were followed by highs, and moments of harmony and balance were few and far between.
Movement director Modris Tenisons refrained from using dance and conventional movement. He directed impressive mass scenes, in which the wind and the waves, as well as characters’ internal struggles were metaphorically represented through movement.
These solutions were new to Latvian theatre. It’s significant that both Blumbergs and Tenisons had previously worked with the “Riga Pantomime” (Rīgas pantomīma) ensemble (also included in the Cultural Canon). Both artists looked deeper than the wording of the play. Instead, they sought ways to express its meaning through visual solutions and movement.
The production’s emotional flow was largely dictated by composer Pauls’s music. The soundtrack was recorded in collaboration with conductor Imants Kokars’s choir “Ave Sol”. The music was the perfect fit and successfully echoed the characters’ feelings and thoughts.
Of course, the play differed depending on the cast. Played by Liepiņš, Brand was a more classic character, an outsider. His Brand was exceptional, a loner, and occasionally very emotional. Liepiņš also didn’t drop his characteristic theatricality. He highlighted Brands’ romantic side, which was otherwise disregarded in the production.
Strenga’s acting was more laconic and didn’t stand out as much. Brand’s asceticism and sharpness were highlighted by Strenga’s lean and intellectually serious appearance. What Strenga did differently to Liepiņš was that he avoided transmitting Ibsen’s original pathos, but made sure that each fundamental idea was understood by the audience. Through Strenga’s acting, Brand became a more contemporary figure. Strenga’s performance has been recorded, and playing Brand is considered his finest professional achievement.
With Strenga in the lead role, “Brand” became the culmination of the 1978 series of the Dailes Theatre’s guest performances in Moscow. Audiences flocked to see it. Apparently, some Moscow theatregoers went as far as to exchange two tickets for “The Master and Margarita” − the new season’s hit at Taganka Theatre − for one ticket to “Brand”.
1987 was the show’s final year with 147 performances to date. Theatre expert Lilija Dzene believes that key to the production’s success was its ability to transform an extremely complex story into something lighter and more topical for the audience. “Arnolds Liniņš’s biggest achievement was actively promoting the story and believing that Ibsen’s tale holds meaning to contemporary society. […] Liniņš’s interpretation of one of the world’s toughest plays becomes a biographical fact of the modern human, and a measure for determining the purpose of his life” wrote Dzene on 1 January 1976 in her piece “Tiks piedots tev” (You’ll be Forgiven) in the first edition of “Māksla” (Art).
The production’s artistic value is yet to become outdated. To this day, every once in a while, viewers can watch a recording of the play on television, and it’s even been shown publicly at the Dailes Theatre.
Translated by Lelde Beņķe