Wednesday 10 February 2016

The Master Builder

Old Vic, London
6th February 2016, matinee

I like the Old Vic. Its appeal of £12 tickets for under 26s was the one of the main reasons why it was the first London theatre I visited outside of the West End. It also mainly stages revivals from the modern and classic canon, meaning that, as a young theatregoer, I could see well-known plays reinvented for a new generation. Warchus has replaced the £12 U26 offer with a new £10 preview scheme. It’s a good idea in that it appeals to all ages and it marks a change in the current trend of preview prices elsewhere being similar prices as performances after press night. However, as the Old Vic don’t do matinees in previews, it seems less accessible to those outside of London. So, I was now in the Upper Circle at the Old Vic (still with a fine view, yes) for nearly triple the amount that I used to pay for a front stalls seat. It’s a good job that I bought my ticket early as well, as the theatre has now introduced dynamic pricing for this production. This would have put this young theatregoer, a key demographic Warchus is keen on bringing into the theatre, off.

One of Ibsen’s last plays, The Master Builder is less of a problem play exploring the moral responsibility of a man to his society and more of an exploration of self-discovery for the protagonist. Warchus’ production, mostly, is visceral and conveys Solness’ inner thoughts rather than his external world. Halvard Solness (Ralph Fiennes) is a master builder, different from an architect in that he has worked his way up from the building trade. The best master builder in town, he is assured of his greatness (he nonchalantly draws a perfect circle with ease), but he is made aware of his own mortality by his predecessor and mentor, Knut, now frail and dying. However, Solness is still ambitious, even narcissistic, even though he now only builds houses, despite him not being particularly passionate about this. There’s a similar idea in Ibsen’s last play When We Dead Awaken in that the acclaimed artist Professor Rubek now only sculpts caricatures despite mockingly putting animal masks under the portraits.

Ibsen paints the picture of a marriage under strain, instigated by the fire in which the Solness’ lost their babies 11 years previously. This is inflamed by the arrival of Hilde Wangel who has been besotted by Solness since meeting him ten years previously when she was only 13. Then, he climbed a steeple which he built, followed by meeting Hilde who he inappropriately kissed and promised her a kingdom of her own. The play depends on the relationship between Solness and Hilde, and Fiennes and Sarah Snook do a fine job. Hilde flatters Solness, his lethargy diminishing when she enters, her youthful energy acting as a muse to him. She seems more intuitive and spiritual than him, aided by her pure appearance, her power seems to relax his steadfast nature as he becomes further obsessed with her.

Once the play is set up we go further into Solness’ psychology. It’s here where Ibsen’s characterisation of Solness becomes slightly erratic. Similar to An Enemy of the People where Dr Stockmann jumps from wanting to persuade the town of its toxic water supply to suddenly decrying them all as mongrels, Solness, through opening up to Hilde, suddenly displays signs of religious paranoia. He feels has to build a steeple (the first since last meeting Hilde all those years ago) to reprieve his guilt for not preventing the house fire, feeling it would make him closer to God. However, Fiennes’ performance is always convincing. His Solness is rarely moving but I feel it profits from that. Instead, Fiennes (and is there a better actor for the job?) brings out Solness’ cerebral qualities, made all the more tragic when we realise that his intellect and self-respect is blinded by Hilde: “I’ll build a castle in the clouds. But with firm roots”!

The play has undercurrents of being interested in the subconscious and spiritual and psychological but I think that David Hare’s adaptation is only partly successful at teasing those things out. One way into the play is to see Hilde and Solness’ scenes as dream-like, but Warchus could delve into this subtext as much as could be done. In these scenes, Solness reflects on his work, trying to grasp new inspiration and aspire to build like he used to (as Ibsen himself does in this and When We Dead Awaken). The motif of ascension that is in much of Ibsen’s work is again explored. In Warchus’ production, for instance, book cases seem to never end in the high-ceilinged room. In the third act, Solness (who is terrified of heights) climbs his steeple, at first to cheers from onlookers but soon having tragic consequences. Perhaps the concept of going up high is associated with feeling free (another common theme), it being somewhere where the air is purer. Perhaps there is a power associated with being up there in a king of the castle manner.

Rob Howell’s magnificent set contributes to much of the production’s success. Solness’ house and garden is presented as an island enclosed by natural surroundings, including an impressive network (like a building scaffold?) of wooden branches at the rear of the stage which plays a significant part in the play’s climax as it crashes to the ground in a plume of smoke, perhaps to mirror Solness’ destruction. Furthermore, Gary Yershon’s music sets the production on a more expressionist path taking us into Solness’ inner mind. In particular, the crescendo of music as Solness expresses his fears about the young coming knocking to take over his work before Hilde knocking on the door seemed a powerful instigation of the dream-like world. The music, efforts from the cast (James Dreyfus and Linda Emond provide excellent support), design, and Hugh Vanstone’s lighting all come together to create a powerful and effective end that shakes off the naturalistic tone to the start of the play.

The Master Builder plays at the Old Vic until 19th March, 2016.
Credit: Manuel Harlan

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