The Master Builder

As an Ibsen completist, I was thrilled to hear that the Old Vic would be showing The Master Builder, Ibsen’s great 1892 work about a successful but flawed architect. I was even more excited to learn that Ralph Fiennes would be starring, and was lucky enough to grab a £10 preview seat. This particular version has been adapted by David Hare, an acclaimed playwright in his own right, and directed by Matthew Warchus.

Halvard Solness (Fiennes) is the “Master Builder” of a small Norwegian town, who has become the pre-eminent local architect despite having no formal qualifications. One day he is visited by Hilda Wangel (Sarah Snook), a young woman who insists the two have met before. She claims that ten years ago, when she was a girl, Solness – who had just completed a significant building project – had offered her romance and “castles in the sky”, which she has now returned to claim. Solness falls under Hilda’s spell and grows closer to her, causing complications in his relationship with his wife, Aline (Linda Emond), with whom he shares a tragic past.

On the surface this sounds like one of those tired “older man becomes infatuated with younger woman” stories, but there is much more to it than that. In many ways Solness is a sympathetic character, with tragedy in his past and a sense of guilt that his success as an architect has come about in part because of the misfortunes of others. Fiennes is superb in the part, often seeming weighed down by the intensity of his emotions. I was less convinced by Snook’s performance as Hilde: she came across as too governess-like, but she did convey the ambiguity of the character: I could never work out whether she was telling the truth or employing flights of fancy in her account of her previous meeting with Holness.

Among the supporting cast, Linda Emond brought a depth of quiet sorrow to Aline Holness, and Martin Hutson was also very good as Holness’ younger, thwarted assistant. Rob Howell’s set is impressively ambitious, and the ending of the play – even though I could see it coming a mile off – is incredibly powerful.

The Master Builder is an extremely odd play, and even now I’m not sure what to make of it – but it’s a powerful production, and worth seeing for Fiennes’ performance in particular.

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