The last Ibsen production I saw was Richard Eyre’s unspeakably tepid Little Eyolf for the Almeida, which put me off Ibsen so much that it required a real effort of will to shell out for the Old Vic’s The Master Builder. I am so glad I did though as David Hare’s masterly adaptation, Matthew Warchus’ inspiring production, and Ralph Fiennes gripping central performance restored my faith in the Norwegian playwright at a bound. The Master Builder draws one relentlessly into the internal torment of an artist, evolving over three hours and two intervals into a fully-fledged masterpiece.
Wracked by guilt over his own uncompromising ambition, celebrated architect Halvard Solness (Fiennes) has cast himself as the tragic hero of his own story, relegating those around him to miserable supporting roles. The arrival of Sarah Snook’s Hilde, a fearless young woman utterly taken with Solness’ mythology and determined to be part of it, precipitates a crisis of identity in the master builder and in a captivating conclusion Ibsen answers the question at the heart of his play: can a man ever truly be born with a God-given destiny to excel, or is Solness merely a cold-hearted manipulator with delusions of grandeur? At least, that is Hare and Warchus’ interpretation of this famously elusive masterpiece.
Fiennes is magnetic, managing to find both a timeless elegance and a fidgeting urgency. Prised open by Hilde, his Solness transforms from the tersely sarcastic – and quite hilarious – tyrant into a man demented in his uncertainty, ferocious in his search for answers. Opposite him, Snook’s Hilde is bold as brass, unashamedly placing her faith in this monster. One is never sure how calculating she is, or quite what her motivations are. An electrifying chemistry crackles between her and Fiennes. Their relationship is unequivocally alive, mutating from courteous strangers, to father and daughter, to husband and mistress, to something akin to soul-mates. It is an absorbing, engrossing journey.
Elsewhere, Linda Emond provides a bleak, sobering Aline, wearied wife of Solness and grieving mother of dead twins. Martin Hutson is convincing as Ragnar, Solness’ downtrodden apprentice, his bitterness and resentment palpable in every syllable. And Rob Howell’s design is almost a character in itself. It is grand in scope but elegantly simple in effect. The first and second acts take place in the rich, wooden interior of Solness’ house, where towering bookcases dwarf the cast and a weighty air of greatness clings to Fiennes. The third act moves events outside, where the lilting birdsong and deep greenery are perversely oppressive, cranking up the tension for a glorious, heart-stopping coup de théâtre in the final moments.
Hare confesses in his programme notes to having once held a deep-seated suspicion of adapting other dramatist’s work. We must be thankful that he has outgrown it, for here he delivers a stellar script that retains sprinkles of the symbolic and the strange while rooting itself firmly in a realistic, authentic dialogue. He has provided Fiennes with some delectably waspish rebuttals and given Emond some equally malicious throwaway remarks, but where the meat of Ibsen’s writing could prove dense, he slices through it with a feverish immediacy, elucidating its absorbing subtext deftly.
Warchus has brought all this together with consummate skill and The Master Builder is the first undisputed hit of his reign as artistic director at the Old Vic. It is a seminal, vital piece of theatre, built upon a masterful translation from one of Britain’s finest playwrights and graced by one of Britain’s finest actors at the very peak of his powers.