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

Film Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Edward Norton, Ralph Fiennes and newcomer Tony Revolori in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson inhabits a world entirely of his own, where real life is amplified and sprinkled with magic dust as we’re taken on a journey into his wonderful imagination.

Anderson’s had a few wobbles recently, but The Grand Budapest Hotel is up there with his best – some would say (me) that it is his best. It’s utterly joyful despite the darkness that loiters in its shadows. It’s both hugely funny and quietly sad and never less than spell-bindingly charming.

Fittingly for a director who creates his own filmic world, The Grand Budapest Hotel is set in a fictional central European country, the Republic of Zubrowka, shortly before the Second World War (to continue the non-specific location, the encroaching Nazis are replaced by unnamed fascists).

The film is a triumph of storytelling even if the story being told is fairly slight. It begins with a  girl paying homage to the statue of The Author before picking up the unnamed writer’s memoir of his visit to the Grand Budapest Hotel in the early 1960s. We are then transported back to 1982, where The Author (a stonking five minutes with the always brilliant Tom Wilkinson) is grappling with this very book.

His reminiscences take us back to the visit to the now shabby Grand Budapest Hotel that inspired the book. The once palatial hotel is now tatty and largely empty, it’s decor peeling and its stately rooms resounding with the silence of the handful of lonely, solo guests that wander wordlessly through them.

Intrigued by the hotel’s decline, The Author (who back in the 1960s looked a lot like Jude Law) meets the owner, the melancholy Zero Mustafa in the once majestic Turkish Baths and over a three course meal in the hotel’s cavernous dining room The Author – and us – learn the story of the decline of Grand Budapest Hotel as Zero takes us back to the 1930s where where we meet M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) and a young Zero (played brilliantly by newcomer Tony Revolori).

Ralph Fiennes, an actor I rarely find palatable (admittedly because he’s usually playing a sadistic bastard) is absolutely wonderful as Monsieur Gustave, the fey, flawed, but big-hearted concierge, a role he performs with perfumed military precision.

He’s a standout star in a film brimming with a cast of characters. There’s Tilda Swinton as M. Gustave’s 82-year-old lover whose death throws the concierge and his new recruit, Zero (who in 1932 was a fledgling lobby boy)  into the path of the silent, but deadly JG Jopling (Willem Dafoe) and a very angry Adrien Brody as her son Dmitri Desgoffe-und-Taxis. Along the way we also encounter Harvey Keitel‘s naked torso, a priceless painting, a spell in jail and, of course, Bill Murray.

Anderson flirts with whimsy, but crucially The Grand Budapest Hotel is too funny and too clever to stray into twee territory. There’s also an aura of sadness and moments of violence that imbue the film with a weightiness that its jauntiness may at first disguise.

The film is beautifully shot, the elegance and symmetry of the hotel and the snowy mountains provide plenty of scope for sweeping panoramas that are interspersed Anderson’s trademark tight facials close-ups. The smudged, muted colours give the film a nostalgic feel and the four eras we move through are largely visually interchangeable. Stories, after all, don’t have a time frame.

by Suzanne Elliott