‘The young for whom I long…’

JESS HOWLEY-WELLS reviews The Master Builder at The Old Vic.

To put it plainly, Ibsen was old when he wrote The Master Builder. By this point in his career he had built a legacy of 23 other plays, works which have cemented his reputation as ‘the father of modern drama’. After Shakespeare, Ibsen is now the second most performed playwright in the world – and we can see similarities in the works of each ageing artist; consider the chaotic exploration of ageing and the human condition in ‘The Winter’s Tale’. In David Hare’s seamless and modern-sounding adaptation of The Master Builder this chaos resonates in every line.

The play itself centres around Halvard Solness (Ralph Fiennes), a seasoned, professional man who we see torn from apathy and coldness to vulnerability and confusion when confronted with youth – as embodied by Hilde Wangel (Sarah Snooke). This confrontation opens a whole can of thematic worms – into a domestic, work-orientated dialogue comes a girl speaking of ‘trolls’ and ‘castles in the air’. She is a girl from his past, a proto-Freudian, spectre-like presence claiming that at the age of 12, Halvard held her, kissed her and promised her a kingdom. Snooke handles this well – she’s not as impish as the text would have a reader believe, maybe, but brings instead an element of the sinister seductress to the play. Importantly, she appears to be the bringer of life and vitality and there is a solidity to her presence that contrasts entirely that of Halvard’s wife, Aline (Linda Edmond), who wanders the stage intermittently clad in mourning black for her lost sons, and her lost home.

Photo credit: Tristram Kenton
Photo credit: Tristram Kenton

Central to this play about a Master Builder is the theme of home, and what makes a home – the set is perfectly designed to convey this. The set changes between each act – but what remains constant is a massive disc of splintered wood looming over, first, the office, then the dining room, and then in the final act: the garden. It looks like a part of a ship-wreck. It is distracting; it makes each domestic scene slightly feral, broken and unappealing. Within the details of each set there are other distracting elements – Act Two opens to Aline watering plants on bookshelves that are about 12 feet high, giving the sense that she is reaching for something that she cannot have: i.e. the perfect home. Act Three opens to a garden in which there is a swing – out of place in a home in which the children have died – that remains untouched until the very last (fatal) minute of the play. Ibsen’s overt symbolism has not gone unacknowledged.

To add to this sense that the world the Master Builder has created is a messy one, Fiennes masterfully shapes a man who could be pitied into a character so complex that we do not know how to receive him. He discusses madness, God, debt, guilt, age, fear, longing, everything; but, comes to a conclusion about nothing. He brings a light touch of humour that makes the coarseness and blatancy of these themes jarring – bringing to light the merging of real and surreal we see in Ibsen’s later work, and the blurring between the two that is faced by those approaching death. It does, however, conclude abruptly. The absurd discussion of a multiplicity of themes with no clear ‘moral’ or ‘message’ does, maybe detract from the drama, and the decision to adhere so strictly to Ibsen’s original structure means two twenty minute intervals. (The row of drama students filling the seats in front of me discussed giving up and heading to the pub by the time we got to interval number two…) There is a distinct sense that the text’s exploration of age and madness comes before – or as a subject replaces – the drama. We are watching Ibsen/Halvard/ Fiennes/Everyman look back and assess what they are leaving behind. However the tragic ending satisfies curiosity, it does not inspire emotion.

‘The Master Builder’ is playing at The Old Vic until the 19th March. For tickets and more information click here: https://tickets.oldvictheatre.com/production/17254