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: Electra, Old Vic

Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra, The Old Vic

Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra, The Old Vic

Featuring enough wailing, gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands to make King Lear look like a sitcom, it takes a skilled hand to translate and reenact the melodrama of Sophocles’ Electra – the ancient playwright’s tale of the Princess of Argos who was sent into the pit of despair by the death of her father by her mother – to suit modern audience’s less histrionic tastes without losing the drama of the original.  

And hands don’t get much more skilled that Frank McGuinness especially when his translated script is brought to life by Kristin Scott Thomas and director Ian Rickson. Scott Thomas owns the stage – or rather the Round – from the minute she opens the doors of her mother and stepfather’s mansion – or as Electra calls it in her hyperbolic way, her prison – bounding down the stairs to the sandy space that she prowls like an injured lioness for the next one hour 40 minutes.

Besides the sand and those big doors, there are few props, just a bare tree trunk and the rather odd addition of a standing tap. If there’s one thing this production missteps on, it’s the inability to make up its mind as to which era we’re in; superficially it’s ancient Greece, but then there’s denim dresses and running water. There’s also more than a touch of modernity in McGuinness’s script, which is sprightly and often humorous, or at least Scott Thomas finds the wit in the contemporary rhythm of her delivery.

But despite the odd guffaw, this is serious stuff. Scott Thomas’ Electra distress is evident in her physicality; painfully thin, twitchy, dusty with that sand, bent double with grief, hatred and anger. Perhaps at times, her performance tips over into the overdramatic, her tears of anguish on hearing of the supposed death of her brother was to my ears more grating than great and their reunion bordering on the affected.  But then, Electra, the play and the woman, were never meant to be subtle.

I liked Scott Thomas best when she was spitting venom, much of it aimed at her poor mother who threatens to put her in an asylum if she doesn’t stop her ravings. There’s a great stand off between her and her hated mother, played with cool poise by  Diana Quick.

I was caught up in Scott Thomas’ performance, perhaps less so by the story and, as good as the supporting cast is – and some, including Quick and Peter Wight as Orestes’ (played by the physically imposing Jack Lowdon last seen, by me at least, in the Almedia’s Ghosts) gruff servant are very good – this was her show. Even the score by PJ Harvey but muted, its haunting strains seeping quietly through and underpinning, but never overwhelming, Electra’s distress.

For tickets and more information, visit

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: Other Desert Cities, The Old Vic

Peter Egan and Sinéad Cusack as Lyman and Polly Wyeth in Other Desert Cities

Family dramas with mismatched parents and offspring locked in a room together for a festive occasion, jabbing accusatory figures at each other, has been playwright fodder for the past few decades. As the world opened up to us, playwrights seemed to shrink inwardly, aiming to make sense of the wider world within our own small ones.

I have mixed feelings about theatrical family dramas. Done right, they simmer with resonance and captivate with a power that a play with bigger boundaries can’t. But they can often misfire, descending into shouty cliches where middle class characters stomp about in bare feet on plush rugs, desperately slurping glasses of wine while pacing up and down.

The synopsis of Other Desert Cities reads like one of those; privileged kids? Check. Successful parents? A Dark Secret? Tick, yes, oh yes. Add in booze (whiskey, not wine) and barefeet (one set) and we looked like we might be in for an evening of disparate shouting.

But West Wing writer Jon Robin Baitz is better than that. His ingredients may be mundane, but the result is Michelin starred. Other Desert Cities is set in Palm Springs in 2002 as America is still shaking from the 9/11 attacks and is now at war with Iraq. As the bombs drop on Baghdad, there’s another war about to erupt in the spacious living room of Polly (Sinéad Cusack) and Lyman Wyeth (Peter Egan), two former Hollywood actors turned Republican politicians who dine with the Regans and pine for the days of an old ‘merica. They are scared inside their desert oasis and their fear is making them mean. But their lives are more complicated than their days of tennis and country club lunches imply and the arrival of their two grown up children, their damaged writer daughter Brooke and sex addicted son Trip along with Polly’s hippy, alcoholic sister, for Christmas unlocks their vulnerability.

Baitz’s script is sparky and original, the intensity broken up with astutely funny lines; the play bristles with anger, resentment and exasperation. The acting is all superb, especially Paul Egan who lies low for the first half, only for his character to unleash his grief and heartbreak so movingly in the second half. Cusack plays her ice cold republican matriarch with a caustic wit with relish, while Martha Plimpton, Keanu Reeves’ shouty girlfriend in Parenthood, tones her adolescent angst down for this role and strikes a convincing note as a desperate, sad woman searching for the truth at what ever cost. Clare Higgins and Daniel Lapaine as Silda Grauman and Trip Wyeth give this ensemble piece extra humanity and humour.

Other Desert Cities is a very American play, but, like Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill  it’s also a very human one, so its themes transcend the Atlantic. It’s very American-ness also helps to  dampen down the class element which can often hinder a middle class family drama like this; rich kids whining can be eye-rollingly dull.

Engrossing, funny and heartbreaking, Other Desert Cities is, unlike the city it’s set in, anything but dry and bland. It’ll grip you by the throat from the beginning and take you by surprise right up until the end.

by Suzanne Elliott

Until 24 May, for more information and tickets