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

Theatre Review: Taken at Midnight, Theatre Royal Haymarket

Penelope Wilton and Martin Hutson in Taken at Midnight

Penelope Wilton and Martin Hutson in Taken at Midnight

About to end its all too brief stint at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, Taken at Midnight is a gripping thought-provoking production that is as enthralling as it is moving.

Set in 1930s Germany, Mark Hayhurst‘s new play tells the true story of Hans Litten, the man who had the courage (arrogance?) to reduce Hitler to size in the witness stand at the trial of SA men in 1931. Hitler’s anger and subsequent revenge comes from him being cut down to human size by Litten; Hitler wanted to be a deity, above reproach or mistake, but that day Litten exposed his humanness and for that the lawyer pays a heavy price.

But hope is not entirely lost, Litten has a vocal cheerleader in the world outside of his concentration camps. His mother, Irmgard, beautifully played by Penelope Wilton, pushes her way into the office of Gestapo chief Dr Conrad to campaign for her son’s release. Soon her visits are frequent, the pair of them enjoying cups of tea as Irmgard’s increasingly angry pleas get bolder.

Taken at Midnight is full of emotion without being mawkish, intelligent without being aloof, Hayhurst’s script is a highlight in a play full of them. I seen several plays recently where words are seemingly thrown out in the vain hope that they will magically slot together and make sense and it was wonderful to hear Hayhurst’s thoughtful, clever script. The play is riveting with an easy rhythm that allows the actors to tell the story without melodrama. That’s not to say emotions are subdued, if anything Taken at Midnight is more intense because it’s not all hysterical hand-wringing.

Competing in the ‘best of…’ category is Penelope Wilton (this week nominated for best actress at the Olivier Awards), whose Irmgard is, in contrast to the turmoil of the story, so stoical and still, her fists clenched beside her body, her jawline holding her anguish. She’s brilliant in the role, beautifully composed, but her determination and courage are never in doubt.

Wilton’s not alone, the whole cast are excellent; Martin Hutson is charming as Hans Litten, capturing his brilliance and the arrogance that accompanied it, while John Light as Dr Conrad reimagines the Gestapo chief as an ordinary man, playing him as a human being not a cardboard cutout, goosestepping monster.

Stories set in Nazi Germany, particularly those that tell true stories of individuals suffering in concentration camps can be relentlessly grim, but Taken at Midnight, while it won’t have you rolling in the aisles, has genuine moments of humour. Wilton, who honed her comic timing in Ever Decreasing Circles, a sitcom I was semi-obsessed with in my childhood (Howard and Hilda’s matching jumpers!), puts it to excellent use here. She’s not playing for laughs, but the amusing lines help make this story even more human.

Jonathan Church’s subtle direction enhances the horror of the final few minutes of Taken by Midnight – there were gasps from the audience at the events before curtain call, no mean feat for a true story.

by Suzanne Elliott

Taken at Midnight | Theatre Royal Haymarket | Until Saturday 14 March 2015