The Master Builder**** (Old Vic)

Posted: March 20, 2016 in Theatre

themasterbuilderIt is said that the higher they climb, the harder they fall. In Henrik Ibsen’s play, Halvard Solness is an architect who has reached the pinnacle in his community. He is a man who builds towers, yet he is afraid of heights; he is reminded of the day that he climbed a steeple and, once there, encountered God, coming to believe that he had supplanted him. Ralph Fiennes, whose stage presence is at least as commanding as any other living actor, becomes Solness, a man who is authoritative, decisive and arrogant until he opens out to reveal his doubts, and vulnerabilities. He dreads that the young will come knocking on his door, he holds back his talented young apprentice in fear that he will replace him, he is haunted by the deaths a decade earlier of his twin baby sons and defeated in his efforts to win back a wife (Linda Emond) who refuses to stop grieving for them. Fiennes gives us a chilling portrayal of the true nature of power, how it corrupts and the mental decay that eats away behind it. Not driven by any strong narrative, Ibsen’s play tends to become weighed down by excessive symbolism, a problem which David Hare’s literate and lucid translation does not altogether resolve. A conventional reading of the play could interpret Hilde (Sarah Snook) to be a young women who uses her sexual charms to lure a vain and lustful Solness, but Matthew Warchus’ production plays down this element and Hilde appears as a playful, whimsical tomboy, full of  youthful hopes and unrealistic dreams, thereby making her more clearly symbolic of the nemesis that the architect fears, quite literally the young knocking on his door. Rob Howell’s gloom-laden sets – an office, a library and a garden – are imposing, but two major scene changes are, presumably, the reasons for the two intervals which interrupt the production’s flow and diminish its intensity. Richard Eyre has recently achieved great success by condensing Ibsen to under two hours, run straight through and this is a play that cries out for similar treatment. Reservations aside, the great pleasure here is seeing Fiennes at the top of his game. Long may it be before he falls.

Performance date: 18 March 2016

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