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A CurtainUp LondonLondon Review
The Master Builder
by Lizzie Loveridge

I'm chained alive to a dead woman.
--- Halvard Solness
The Master Builder
Lisa Dillon as Hilda Wangel and Patrick Stewart as Halvard Solness
(Photo: Nobby Clarke)

It isn't my favourite play. The Master Builder is Ibsen's melodrama about an ageing architect who is reinvigorated by the naïve attention of an impressionable girl, forty years his junior. Add the phallic symbolism of erecting towers and, rather than building castles in the air, I feel the play generates a lot of hot air. The talk about one's inner troll makes less sense than one's dark side but maybe that is Star Wars rather than Star Trek, which adapter John Logan includes in his credits.

However nothing I say will stop people from going to the West End to see Star Trek's astronaut Frenchman, Captain Jean Luc Picard, "live" on stage. They were there on the opening night, fidgetting and creaking in the Albery's chairs, which could creak for England, coughing and even getting up to leave. Most were waiting for their moment after two and a half hours to loudly cheer, whoop and cat call their appreciation. Now what phenomenon makes people sit inattentively through a play (true it was hard to hear Patrick Stewart in Row O of the stalls) only to burst into tumultuous applause at the end? Is it perhaps relief that it is all over or rather that they have come not to see Ibsen, but to see Patrick Stewart? Apparently as he leaves by the stage door every night, his famous bald dome gets covered in lipstick prints from kisses.

Too often John Logan's adaptation jarred so that the actors sounded as if they were repeating someone else's lines not that their characters were speaking from the heart. Mind you, concepts like the "robust consciousness" which Solness and Hilda have together do not trip off the tongue into instant intellectual realisation. I also cannot imagine "thrilling to my inner troll".

Patrick Stewart gives an appropriately contained and quite cold performance as Halvard Solness, the miserly architect who so lacks the generosity to "sign off" his apprentice, Ragnar Brovik (Andrew Scarborough). At least Hilda's visit has one good outcome when he relents. I was at times reminded of the last role I saw Stewart playing on London's stage, that of Ebeneezer Scrooge. Solness is elegant in Victorian frock coat with winged collar. Solness is not a nice man. In this production his clerk, Kaia (Katherine Manners), who is cast off when Hilda arrives, is quite overtly sexual. Solness makes it clear that he only keeps her in order that her fiancé Ragnar should stay working for him too.

Lisa Dillon has a difficult role as Hilda Wangel the girl who has incubated for ten years her spire climbing Solness fantasy. She is a Norwegian vision, blonde very pretty and a breath of fresh air in the atrophying Solness household. Sue Johnston is a real master of her profession as the sickly Mrs Solness, unfulfilled and having failed her twin boy babies so that they both died. Her regretful performance is very moving. Their house with three empty nurseries says it all. Andrew Scarborough's Ragnar Brovik has all the indignation of a man held back unfairly.

Memorably Hildegard Bechtler has given us three beautiful sets, two of them rather too beautiful and light for this Ibsen play when staged in period. The first, Solness' office, is like a painting by Andrew Wyeth, shades of pale putty, biscuit and delicate monochrome, grey and white. The second set has a floor to ceiling window that lets the light stream in, and what looks like modern hand painted kitchen cupboards and plants on pedestals and doesn't look at all like the usual nineteenth century clutter. This set makes a nonsense of Solness' complaint that "there is never a glimmer of light in this home" or is it an ironic set? The final staging, outside the house with two soaring trunks of brown barked pines has an altogether darker feel, although we are denied a sight of the tower Solness has chosen to climb. These trees stand in suggesting Ibsen's own comment about The Master Builder, "People rightly feel that nobody builds so high and goes unpunished."

The Master Builder
Written by Henrik Ibsen
A new version by John Logan
Directed by Anthony Page

Starring: Patrick Stewart, Sue Johnston
With: Edward de Souza, Katherine Manners, Andrew Scarborough, Jonathan Hackett, Lisa Dillon
Set Designer: Hildegard Bechtler
Costume Designer: Deirdre Clancy
Lighting Designer: Howard Harrison
Sound: John Leonard
Running time: Two hours 30 minutes with one interval .
Box Office: 020 7369 1730
Booking to 17th August 2003
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 18th June 2003 Performance at the Albery Theatre, St Martin's Lane, London WC2 (Tube Station: Leicester Square)

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