Epic ambitions

Theatre - Sheridan Morley on an Ibsen that defies staging and a reworking of the greatest Broadway c

Even by Ibsen's standards, Brand is a hard play to stage. Written in 1865, the first of his major dramatic works, it lives in the memory of theatregoers over here largely because of Michael Elliott's 1959 revival, which not only established the stardom of the actor Patrick McGoohan but also the birth of the 59 Theatre Company, still in occupation at the Manchester Royal Exchange.

Nobody ever seems to recall, however, that the production only came into existence because of Elliott's family background. His father was the firebrand Canon Elliott of Folkestone, who, during my father's childhood there, would regularly ascend the pulpit, apologising that he had been detained by a little personal chat with God who passed on his best wishes to the congregation.

Set in the Norway of the late 1860s, Brand is ultimately about the possibility that the Church had become too soft and all-pleasing in its attempt to increase attendance on a Sunday morning. As the RSC's Adrian Noble has recognised, this is still a controversial issue today. In Ralph Fiennes he has found an actor capable, as few are, of communicating the sheer crowd-pulling power of the lead role.

True, the best casting would probably have been the late Billy Graham. It is curious to reflect, a century later, that from Martin Luther King all the way back to the fictional Elmer Gantry, these tub-thumping charismatic preachers seem to have come exclusively from the other side of the Atlantic.

True, too, that this is a play that almost defies staging. Designed to be an epic poem, read rather than staged, it consists of lengthy scenes in which Brand gets to rant a lot at local citizens waiting for him, one suspects, to reach the end of a paragraph.

Adrian Noble has wisely kept it all very minimal and Oliver Cotton is wonderful as the mayor who has supped with the devil. But these voices, which echo from the mountain top, only begin to give us an epic. Somehow, the final "All or nothing" message doesn't quite seem to justify the journey we have shared with Brand.

Back in 1928, the playwrights Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur wrote what has come to be regarded as the greatest Broadway comedy of all time. But the real miracle of The Front Page was that it turned really serious material into farce. As both authors had worked in the ink-stained environs of a Chicago newsroom, they were magnificently able to convey a slice of life and a class of character that had simply never been seen on a Broadway that was then emerging, very slowly, from the stilted world of European drama.

Hollywood recognised immediately what they had achieved. As early as 1930, Louis Milestone made a screen version with Adolphe Menjou and Pat O'Brien, which amazed audiences by the quicksilver speed of its dialogue and the equally rapid use of the new technique of editing. Nine years later, Howard Hawks at Columbia had a moment of genius. What if the tough newsroom boss, and the even tougher star reporter, were not played by two men but by a man and woman who had already been divorced?

That was how The Front Page became His Girl Friday. And now, thanks to the American dramatist John Guare, we get the first-ever staging of the rewrite. Just to confuse the story further, we have also had a stage musical of The Front Page which ran for many months over here as Windy City, while, in a brave new world of television, it also became, in 1988, Switching Channels.

The reason that the National and audiences on both sides of the Atlantic have always loved this comedy is that it is as perfect a represen-tation of its tumultuous Chicago times as any of the Cagney-Bogart movies. Although Hecht and MacArthur claimed to be satirising the way pre-war Chicago newspapers viewed accidental or intentional death, they ended up with a sentimentally devout tribute to journalists who (unlike the politicians or criminals) are ultimately forgiven everything in the name of their calling.

I am not convinced that the director, Jack O'Brien, has done the play any favours by setting it within a Hollywood film studio of the period, but he has drawn magnificently over-the-top performances from Zoe Wanamaker, Alex Jennings and Margaret Tyzack, all outstanding in a cast of 30.

Brand is at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London SW1 (0870 901 3356) until 30 August

His Girl Friday is at the Olivier, National Theatre, London SE1 (020 7352 3000) until 22 November

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