Thursday, January 28, 2016


James Karas

Henrik Ibsen is generally accepted as one of the greatest and most revolutionary playwrights but his plays frequently appear dated or covered with some dust. Some people are reluctant to rush out and see them and the solution, aside from great actors and directors, has been to tweak the plot by going beyond a translation. In other words, adaptation.

The Old Vic has done that for The Master Builder by having playwright David Hare adapt the play to a modern tone in language that resonates with today’s audience. The result is Ibsen and perhaps Hare in a highly approachable production.

Ralph Fiennes and Sarah Snook in The Master Builder. Photo: Manuel Harlan
After Ibsen and Hare, the credit goes to director Matthew Warchus (also Artistic Director of the Old Vic) and Ralph Fiennes in the title role.

As usual, Ibsen piles numerous issues into the play but I look at it as a story of the lion in winter who refuses to accept the fact that it is no longer spring or summer in his chronological whereabouts. Halvard Solness is a master builder with some very unpleasant traits. He is arrogant, aggressive, rude and a user of people. He abuses his young protégé Ragnar (Martin Hutson) and his erstwhile employer Knut (James Laurenson). He maintains a (we assume) less than platonic relationship with his secretary Kaja (Charlie Cameron) who happens to be engaged to Ragnar. He keeps her on staff so she can keep Ragnar from resigning and pursuing his own career. His relationship with his wife is cold and guilt-ridden. Judged by middle class morality, Halvard is not a very nice man.

But he has another side. He is a talented builder, a commanding individual who exudes confidence, authority and genius in his field. He is also a dreamer whose relations with young women or at least Hilde Wangel go beyond sexual attraction. It is indeed a mythical attraction that transcends mere human desire. It is a search for youth, achievement and scaling the heights, in this case by the placing of a wreath on a vane on top of a building.

When he has accomplished that difficult feat, he will tell God that he has become a free man, a master in his own kingdom. In other words Halvard has become a god. The Greeks had a word for this: hubris. The dream of transcendental love with a young woman and supernatural ambition can only lead to utter destruction.

I write all of this about Solness as a way of describing the achievement of Ralph Fiennes. His Solness combines all the above characteristics. He may have defects but everything is bigger than life. It takes a great actor to portray a tragic hero like Solness and Fiennes does a great job.

The supporting cast is superb. Sarah Snook as Hilde Wangel combines dreamy ambitions, admiration, adoration and hero-worship on a grand scale as she impels Solness towards impossible deeds. She looks like a nymph, a goddess, a troll who can make a god or a toy out of a man.      

Linda Emond as Solness’s wife Aline is a sad and tormented mortal who cannot understand her husband. She had two children who died and their nurseries are still kept as if they will return. Emond gives us a sympathetic and troubled Aline who is simply on a different wavelength from her husband however guilty he may feel about the state of his marriage.

Fiennes’ portrayal and this production of The Master Builder should go down as one of the major moments in the history of the great play.   

The Master Builder by Henrik Ibsen adapted by David Hare continues until March 19, 2016 at The Old Vic, London, England.

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