Ibsen, The Master Builder, Old Vic, March 16th, 2016

Latest revue from Simon Jenner

One doesn’t usually put translation above such acting as this production boasts, but having seen David Hare’s Chekhov trilogy it’s a relief to report he’s faithful to the spirit of Ibsen who volubly sanctioned updating his dialogue in any case. This fleet version separated into its three acts sleeks action with devastating clarity.

This clean-driven production directed by Matthew Warchus drills home Solness’ aberrant insecurities in Ralph Fiennes’ chiselled demon, the sheer velocity of his crack-up and the hallucinatory appearance of Youth knocking at the door, bang on queue for his destruction.

Solness’ break as a master-builder has been the breaking of his wife, her family home in flames leading indirectly to the death of their twins, a fact Solness painfully drives home to his interloper. Linda Edmond’s Mrs Solness and Fiennes here reach out for each other hopelessly and the ruined flames of their love touch even Hilde Wangel, who’s come from a symbolist play demanding the kingdom Solness promised her a child ten years earlier.

It’s clear here that the gifted apprentice – son of the architect Solness has ruined and himself ruthlessly kept back – is the other youth: not just knocking but destroying. He taunts Wangel with the notion of daring Solness to ascend a spire once more. And it’s Wangel who forces Solness to release him to his full potential. Martin Hutson seethes with naked resentment, pitched even to spite. It clarifies the line of destruction opening from him through Wangel to Solness.

Fiennes at the beginning has armoured himself so effectively you feel this might in any case destroy him. ‘You must not ask of me things I cannot do’ he rejects any notion of advancing his apprentice like a hieratic priest which is what in the end he becomes, to a very different god and ends.

Fiennes’ coiled spring both seems both to snap and release through Wangel’s agency, Australian Sarah Snook who ends on a swing. Her rather one-note freshness admirably suits a generalised Hilde, yomping out of the mountain air trailing trolls who leap with alacrity into Solness’ head to join those others he mutters at within; but her particular allure eludes Snook.

The psychological even psychic strangeness of Solness teeters on the brink of fracturing this naturalist drama, which with Wangel it does, filling Fiennes with a smiling vigour that botoxes the fear out of him, however briefly. But Fiennes’ guilt is here something insurmountable, as the memorable central scene with his desolate wife shows, that pitches the antimonies of duty – her deadened, leadened word – against the troll-ish vitalism that his re-awakened desires directed at Hilde, writhe savagely.

The set reflects this too, Rob Howell quoting rigid forms that at one point collapse, a metallic hint of caged-in-ness, visited with distant mountain-echoes. Landscape has a memory, the cries of children, the roar of the house, the seeds of vertiginous destruction where Fiennes’ play-long plunge launches Ibsen’s last phase.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s