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A CurtainUp London Review
The Master Builder
Ibsen was called "the father of realism." In The Master Builder, Halvard Solness (Ralph Fiennes) opens the play with his unpleasant, irascible nature. He rejects the request of Knut Brovik (James Laurenson) on behalf of his son, Solness' s assistant, Ragnar Brovik (Martin Hutson) who has been engaged to Kaja Fosli (Charlie Cameron) for five years. Kaya is indispensable to Solness as his bookkeeper and disreputably, implied as his mistress. Solness appears depressed in this first scene and Fiennes delivers rage with confidence.
David Hare's fine, new adaptation takes this play from Scandinavia and from the end of the nineteenth century and makes it relevant to today. The arrival of Hilde Wangel (a zany Sarah Snook) gives Solness back some of the lust for life he once had. She is deeply unconventional with her petticoat skirt tied in a knot to reveal one thigh in an age when women were covered up. She has been climbing down a mountain. For ten years, since she was 13, she has been nursing a passion for the master builder when he climbed to the top of the spire in her mountainside home town for the "topping" out ceremony of the church he had built.
The theme of The Master Builder is of age having to give way to youth. Just as Solness outpaced Knut Brovik in design and building, so Ragnar is producing better designs, which Solness feels he has to stifle. "The youth are coming, " says Solness. Hilde brings out the best in Solness with talk of her dream of castles in the air. This contrasts with the reality of his arid marriage to Aline (Linda Emond) since the death of his twin sons after a fire destroyed his wife's family home and leaves three empty bedrooms in the house where they live now.
Rob Howell's sets have a background of randomly assembled wood, maybe driftwood because of its uneven shapes or maybe burnt wood. An oval cut out like a huge version of a balsa wood kit hangs at an angle over the Solness studio. The second act library soars away to the full height of the stage with claustrophobic bookshelves, plants on all the reachable shelves. In the final act, set in the green, planted garden with a swing, we see Aline and Hilde relating to each other as women and talking about Kaja.
The performances from Ralph Fiennes and Sarah Snook are very fine in director Matthew Warchus' capable hands. Fiennes plays curmudgeonly well, a disaffected husband with a failing career urged on to out reach himself by the young idealist woman. In Snook's hands, Hilde has an endearing quirkiness which makes her candidly say to Solness, "Why don't you call yourself an architect like everybody else?" Solness replies that he has no formal qualification and has learnt the building skills from the bottom up. She supports him by calling him Master Builder at every opportunity.
Sarah Snook has a deep voice and an attention grabbing stage presence, reminding me of Vanessa Redgrave which should have casting directors lining up for her to play Rosalind in As You Like It." And, I came away actually warming to Ibsen's Hilde Wangel, despite her part in the tragedy, which is staged with full and shattering impact. Is there no fool, like an old fool?
This is another splendid production from Matthew Warchus' Old Vic which will stay with me.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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