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A CurtainUp London London Review
The Master Builder

We do not choose who we are fond of Mister Master Builder. — Hilde
The Master Builder
Stephen Dillane as Solness and Emma Hamilton as Kaja
(Photo: Simon Annand )
California director Travis Preston brings a metaphysical, quintessential production of Ibsen's The Master Builder to the Almeida. Not only is the play stripped back to its psychological essentials, so too is the theatre with just the Almeida's bare brick wall at the rear of the stage and a tall plain staircase running from top left to bottom right. Preston and Dillane collaborated here on the one man production of Macbeth which I liked very much five years ago.

Stephen Dillane in the named role makes his entrance like a cat, creeping in to pounce on the girl Kaja Fosli (Emma Hamilton) who is working in his office. This predatory sexual behaviour defines Halvard Solness the Master Builder as a man exploiting the women who work for him. Worse, he explains to others than he does this to keep Ragnar Brovik (John Light) in his employment.

Anastasia Hille, looking strained and ill, fusses as the wife aware of her husband's infidelities. When Hilde Wangel (Gemma Arterton) arrives in the Solness household, carrying the torch she has carried for ten years, remembering the promises made to her as a twelve, thirteen year old girl, by the architect of a tall tower built in her home town of Lysanger, to give her a kingdom, we are in the realm of fairy tales and Norse symbolism.

The extreme physicality of this direction has Hilde and Solness play fighting, prowling round each other like a pair of cats. The pair facing, but sideways to the audience, they engage in an animalistic expressionism of her inciting him on to a fantasy which he readily indulges in as they hold each other's gaze, absorbed in the excitement and sexuality of the moment. Does this make for great theatre? Maybe - but only if you find yourself in agreement with the interpretation. It depends whether you like the symbolism on the surface taking centre stage or implied as an undercurrent for you to discover yourself. All the talk of inner trolls may be wasted on those not from a Scandinavian background.

I cannot fault Dillane's performance — he is both sexy and powerful, cruel to others and it is all the more impressive to see him seduced by the adoration of the much younger woman, Hilde. Gemma Arterton has a naive childishness which is perfect for this part as she single-mindedly both spurs Solness on to greater heights and is the architect of his downfall. The ensemble performances are flawless with Jack Shepherd's concerned doctor, John Light's downtrodden, agonised Ragnar and Patrick Godfrey's dying Knut Brovik whose last request is ignored by Solness until too late. You can feel the pain that Anastasia Hille is suffering from the description of the loss of her family home in a fire (and the subsequent death of her sons) which destroys her and enables her husband's building design career.

At one hour 45 minutes without an interval, this play usually runs at nearer to two and a half hours, there is an intensity to this modern dress production. But for me The Master Builder still isn't Ibsen's greatest play.

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The Master Builder
Written by Henrik Ibsen
Translated by Kenneth McLeish
Directed by Travis Preston

Starring: Stephen Dillane, Gemma Arterton, Anastasia Hille
With: Jack Shepherd, John Light, Patrick Godfrey, Emma Hamilton
Design: Vicki Mortimer
Lighting: Paul Pyant
Sound: John Leonard
Running time: One hour 45 minutes without an interval
Box Office: 020 7359 4404
Booking to 8th January 2011
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 19th November 2010 at the Almeida, Almeida Street, London N1 1TA (Tube: The Angel, Islington)

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