Theatre Review: The Master Build, Old Vic

Ralph Fiennes shines in this uneven, uneasy Ibsen


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

Theatre Review: A Doll’s House, The Young Vic

Booked during the soggy, grey late June days that seemed doomed to be our summer, an Ibsen play on a glorious July evening suddenly seemed all wrong.

But the Young Vic’s recent production of the Norwegian playwright’s A Doll’s House was so absorbing that it was easy to forget the enticing sunshine outside as I became wrapped up in the domestic drama that heated up on stage. Ibsen, like so many of those famous foreign names, seems, to the uninitiated, so impenetrable, as dark and bleak as a Norwegian winter. But, like so many of those heavyweight names, his writing has endured because it’s the opposite of those preconceptions – it’s so human and accessible. In reality Ibsen’s dialogue, particularly in the hands of Simon Stephens’ sharp translating pen, is quick, witty and enthralling with an unexpected lightness.

A Doll’s House centres around a middle class family in the 19th century as they get ready for Christmas, with Nora Helmer at its emotional centre. Ibsen is of course casting his net far wider than the Helmer’s home, he’s using this small domestic scene as a device to reveal the plight of women at the tail end of the 1800s. Not that Nora could be described as an every woman – she’s wealthy and beautiful with the self of entitlement that those two pieces of luck bring you. But this gives even greater emotional pull to her moment of clarity.

Nora is the quintessential pretty girl who’s used her looks as currency to buy a life she thought she wanted. Closeted and controlled since birth, first by her late father before and then by the handsome, but superficial and controlling, Torvald – a man so self-obsessed that when he hears his good friend Dr Rank is dying his first words are “I knew I wouldn’t have him for long.” – she suddenly metaphorically wakes up and finds herself trapped in a world she longs to escape. Ibsen peppering Torvald’s dialogue with bird nicknames (‘skylark’ ‘swallow’) for Nora are, perhaps, rather unnecessarily heavily-loaded ironies.

Ian MacNeil’s fantastic set was so attention grabbing that it took on a life of its own. The revolving rooms not only brought the ‘doll’s house’ to life, but also added a filmic quality to the play, its tracking-shot style keeping the momentum going and in turn keeping Nora ‘trapped’ inside the house and the story.

The actors were all fantastic, but special plaudits must go to Hattie Morahan who captures Nora’s fragility, intelligence, manipulative selfish-ness – her humanness. Sometimes you wanted to slap her round the face (she’s a terrible friend to Susannah Wise’s Christine Linde) but Morahan also makes you like her to the extent that your heart breaks along with Nora’s as she makes her agonising decision (Stephens’ left out Ibsen’s final, ambiguous line – he clearly doesn’t believe they’ll be a reconciliation). The final scene is wrenching, such is the pain of Morahan and Dominic Rowan’s Torvald, that it’s almost unwatchable. Nora’s heartbreak is so raw that is was no wonder Morahan looked drained as she came out to take her bow for the curtain call. That’s not to say it was all bleak. I almost forgave Torvald all his self-obsession and shallowness after Rowan’s brilliantly funny drunk scene following their neighbour’s party. This was no one-dimensional brute, just as this wasn’t a one-dimensional production of Ibsen’s multi-layered masterpiece.

by Suzanne Elliott