Old Vic Theatre, London – until 19 March 2016
Halvard Solness is afraid. He’s afraid of young people displacing him, and heights. But he is revered as the master builder of his town, a self-made man with luck on his side. The middle-aged, unwell Halvard is surrounded by similarly unwell people: a wife who never recovered from past losses, a dying employee and a lovesick clerk. When a young woman he met ten years before arrives on his doorstep and disrupts his routine, the Everyman’s life goes into free fall. This dense, wordy production of Ibsen’s late work is a tightly coiled spring with exquisite design, but David Hare’s adaptation could use a good trim.
Luckily, Ralph Fiennes’ stage presence has been found some time between now and his Prospero at the Haymarket several years ago; Master Builder Halvard Solness flits around the edge of exploding for for nearly three hours and makes for captivating viewing. His tension isn’t alone, though. Linda Emond plays his wife Aline, a woman haunted by traumatic events in her past. Their cold, loveless marriage adds to the despair that hangs over the play. Even with bright spark Hilde Wangel (Sarah Snook), the foreboding and gloom still lurks on the edge of their existence.
Despite the grand performances, the set steals the show. Rob Howell’s design is grand and imposing, with symbolic elements that complement the play’s mood and tone. Curves and lines blend to create contemporary forms, but with a weight and scale that implies the architecture is not of this era. Hugh Vanstone’s lighting adds atmosphere and shadow, further emphasising plot points, but it could be used more often to create more visual variation. Though there are changes in both of the two intervals, the dominant elements remain until the climactic final moments; the sudden disintegration proves more surprising than the characters’ actions in the story itself.
Hare doesn’t skimp on language, but even though the two intervals prevent this production from feeling like its two hours and forty-five minutes, some of the scenes begin to lose momentum. Hare doesn’t attempt to make the language contemporary and maintains the script’s intellect, but neither is it hard to follow. There are just a lot of words, more than are actually needed. Snook uses her physicality most effectively, but the rest of the cast stick to the constraints of the text when extracting characterisation. Fiennes’ Halvard visibly relaxes in the presence of a younger woman, but outside of these infrequent moments, it’s all about the words.
Despite Matthew Warchus’ modern update of the Old Vic’s interior, this production of The Master Builder is firmly rooted in old fashioned realism. It’s a real treat for the senses with wonderful performances and a huge scope for interpretation – a most excellent production of a classic, despite its length.
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