Theatre Review: The Master Build, Old Vic

Ralph Fiennes shines in this uneven, uneasy Ibsen

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Ralph Fiennes as Halvard Solness and Sarah Snook as Hilde Wangel in the Old Vic’s The Master Builder

Ralph Fiennes, once so synonymous with villains and buttoned up English men, has more recently revealed his talent for comedy behind that clipped delivery. In his latest release, The Bigger Splash, he plays a mischievous, cavorting old soak with such heart, wit and merriment that it’s impossible not to love him, even though, if Harry Hawkes isn’t quite Voldemort or Amon Goeth, he’s pretty morally bankrupt. And then there was that scene stealing role as Monsieur Gustave in Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel where he was a comedy revelation as the eccentric, charming concierge.

In the Old Vic’s Master Builder, he blends his talent for note perfect wit with his long acknowledged skill for delving deep into the psyche of a flawed man. Ibsen’s late play was first performed in 1893 to muted reviews and has been adapted for this production by the unstoppable David Hare. The play starts of deceptively lightly. The first third (this is a play of three halves) is funny, almost breezy. Fiennes as Halvard Solness the master builder, practically glides around the stage, seeming a man with few concerns, joshing with his junior Ragnar Brovik and flirting with his secretary Kaja Fosli (played by Charlie Cameron, inexplicably doing a baby voice).

But this is Ibsen, a man so brooding he makes Voldemort look like a laugh. Naturally, things get progressively darker as we move towards The Final Tragedy, and ending that is so red lit that it looked like a visual interpretation of my viciously underlined GCSE copy of Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

Solness is the master builder in a Norwegian town, having built his way up – literally – from nothing. But his successful career has been founded on tragedy and his life and marriage unravel further as he seemingly sinks further into madness and paranoia. The arrival of Hilde Wangel, a rosey cheek paragon of Norwegian innocence who Solness first met 10 years before, when she was just 13,  is seemingly the portal he needs to enable him to escape; a free spirit who will help him “build castles in the sky”. But Norwegian’s finest playwright has other ideas.

If you like Ibsen (I do), you’ll love this. It’s full of foreboding, both past, present and future that smothers the original lightheartedness with full on tragedy. This production is largely very good, mostly down to Fiennes’ tremendous skill as an actor. He’s a joy to watch, effortlessly embodying the complex inner world of the flawed Halvard Solness, the titular master builder whose imminent fall from power and grace is the plot on which the play spins.

There were a few wrong notes. The two intervals may allow time for Rob Howell’s stunningly impressive set to be changed, but they do break up the continuity of the play. The interval always breaks the spell of theatre, especially in a production where the tone shifts so dramatically between each break.

While Fiennes is magnificent, he’s brilliance rather overshadows the rest of the cast. Linda Emond as his wife Aline Solness is graceful and poised, embodying a grief so heavy you can practically see her dragging it around the stage. Martin Hutson does all he needs to do as Ragnar Brovik, who is less a character more a moral compass point, but while Sarah Snook’s takes on the twee Hilde with enthusiasm, she looks self-conscious next to Fiennes effortless study of a man with a fear of literal and metaphoric falling.

Ibsen perhaps tries to ask too many questions in The Master Builder and doesn’t give the actors the tools to answer them, but this is still an arresting production with a bright star at its centre.

The Master Build | Old Vic | Until 19 March 2016

Book review: Beatlebone by Kevin Barry

Kevin Barry’s lyrical tale of an imagined John Lennon trip to the West Coast of Ireland hits all the right notes.

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Beatlebone by Kevn Barry, published by Doubleday Books

In 1967, in a bid to escape Beatlemania and find his own shangri-la, John Lennon bought an island off the west coast of Ireland. Dorinish Island – nickednamed Beatle Island – is one of hundreds (legend says 365, but there’s a little Irish story-telling in that myth) of islands overlooking Clew Bay that are actually hills flooded by the raging Atlantic that have formed an archipelago of uninhabited, weather beaten sanctuaries for birds – and the occasional Beatle.

Lennon only visited his island once, but in Kevin Barry’s wonderfully imaginative tale, the Beatle slipped in a second visit in 1978. This was a time in Lennon’s life when he was deep in dough and diapers, forsaking creativity for domestic bliss. But the former Beatle’s happiness was costly him artistically. In Barry’s story, his visit to this wind-battered, bird-shat on part of the world was an attempt to unlock his past and unleash his musical demons once again.

Lennon doesn’t find a great deal of musical inspiration on his journey, but he does meet Cornelius O’Grady and a dog called Brian Wilson. Cornelius’ unlikely relationship with Lennon – he becomes his chauffeur, his fixer, his enabler – forms the centrepiece of the novel. There are some wonderful moments between the two of them, my favourite, which I read three times in a row, was John trying to get Cornelius to unravel the meaning behind Kate Bush’s ‘wiley moor’ in Wuthering Heights as he crudely mimics her vocals.

The novel’s plot is thin – Lennon’s quest to get to the island is really a springboard to life’s greater issues – death, love, the past, family. Barry’s Lennon is haunted by his childhood and his absent father and dead mother. Despite his success and present happiness, he still feels the gaping hole of the abandoned child.

Barry captures Lennon’s acerbic wit, his brooding bitterness and eye for the absurd. You can hear his Liverpudlian drawl in the lyrical beat of Barry’s dialogue. The novel has elements of magical realism, at times it’s a trippy stream of consciousness, like a literary I Am The Walrus. In one chapter about half way through the novel, Barry breaks through the novel’s fourth wall and writes about why he choose to tell this story, detailing the research he carried out to follow in Lennon’s footsteps. It should be jarring, but it only fuels the story and adds another interesting stylistic element to a novel not afraid to stray off the narrative path.

Beatlebone is a warm, funny, charming novel that’s thick with insight and humour. Barry captures voices and dialogue with a poet’s ear, from Lennon’s old-fashioned Scouse to the music of Cornelius’ ramblings. You can taste the salty tang of the Atlantic and feel Lennon’s tension as he hunts desperately for his piece of privacy followed by the press, doused with whiskey and side-tracked by primal scream advocates (of the therapy, not Bobby Gillespie’s bunch).

Beatlebone is a joy, an exhilarating, fantastical, witty tale fused by Barry’s wild literary imagination and intoxicating lyrical language.