The Master Builder at the Old Vic | A triumph of tenderness and madness

**Here be spoilers**

Being perplexed by The Master Builder is nothing new. Generations of audiences have sat equally bewildered and fascinated by Ibsen’s play, arguing what the play is all about. Is it about an elderly professional on the way out and the destruction caused by his infatuation with a young woman? Is it about a hero on a creative journey that ends wrong? Is it about keeping death at bay by an affair or by dreaming again? 

The genius of theatre – in my humble opinion – is in the way the staging of a play craftily guides the audience towards one or another interpretation. For members of the audience who prefer one reading over another, some interpretations repel us (like Electra at the Old Vic repelled me) while others show a new and fascinating aspect of the play.

Ralph Fiennes and James Dreyfus - Photo © Manuel Harlan from The Old Vic's Facebook page.
Ralph Fiennes and James Dreyfus – Photo © Manuel Harlan from The Old Vic’s Facebook page.

The play is set in motion when Hilde, a young woman, comes into the world of Halvard Solness, the Master Builder. She remembers him from 10 years back, when he climbed the steeple of a church he built in her home town and triumphant placed a wreath on it to celebrate the completion of the building. Solness is still building, with his staff and his wife Aline near him. And yet, even though he is the best, “at the top of his profession”, he feels the young coming up behind him and he is mortified. (see full plot summary on wikipedia)

The first time I saw The Master Builder was in 2003 (I had to check and recheck because I scarcely believed that so many years had passed) with Patrick Stewart in the title role (it was a production by Anthony Page at the Albery in London).

Where the 2003 staging presented a Master Builder infatuated and controlling like a spider (at least I remember it so), The Old Vic production injects an underlying carnal passion and tinge of tenderness and madness that guide the play into more sinister and psychologically profound waters.

Sarah Snook - Photo © Manuel Harlan on the Old Vic's Facebook page
Sarah Snook – Photo © Manuel Harlan from The Old Vic’s Facebook page.

It is ironic on some level that everyone keeps telling Solness that he is at the top of this profession since we learn from his wife Aline that he is mortally afraid of heights. He, in turn, says “I am the Master Builder” and uses the phrase as a shield, with a slight ironic undertone, since he is aware of the doubts that keep gnawing at him. Of the luck he has had and sees slipping away, of the tragedy that propelled him to new heights, of the young who keep coming and he can imagine them trying to tear him down. Hilde uses a similar phrase “my Master Builder”, as a construct, as a puppet or hagiography she has created in her mind and is here to prove to everyone – including the puppet itself – that she is right.

This is all made possible by Ralph Fiennes as the Master Builder and Sarah Snook as Hilde Wangel. Fiennes brings a subtlety to the character that I scarcely thought possible. His voice is an incredibly well tuned instrument which in this case conveys control, fear and Solness’s inner turmoil. Snook uses a more corporeal style – rightly I think since Hilde is a young and passionate creature – to dismiss the Master Builder’s doubts with a wave of her hand and to guide him on to the steeple with the rising of her breast in fierce pride.

Scene from Stella (1955)

There is an old Greek film, Stella with Melina Mercouri. Stella is at the taverna where she sings when Miltos, a soccer player, approaches her.
MILTOS: I like you Stella
STELLA: I know
M: What do you think?
S: You are late
M: Were you waiting for me?
S: I was certain you would come.
M: Why?
S: Because I wanted it.

Hilde’s conviction of who Solness is, he is THE Master Builder, reminds me of that dialogue. HER Master Builder is fearless, perfect, brave and – significantly – HERS. She wants it to be so and thus she makes it so. In the same way that Stella wanted Miltos to come and so he came. For Hilde there is no other Master Builder than the one she met – or imagined – when she was 13 years old. With the utter conviction of youth she moves in a world of absolutes where death does not reign. Weren’t we all under the impression that we would never die when we were young after all?

Solness moves in a different universe. He knows all too well the separation between his public persona and his insecure reality. He battles every day the tragedy of expectations and yet he is unable to convey his drama to his wife Aline or to let go of the position he feels he has earned. And yet a doubt gnaws at him as old age approaches. Was his success his own or is it true that when he was younger – like Hilde – he too willed things into existence. He wanted things to be so and they were. Where the young know with utter certainty that their desires are correct, so the old start doubting their choices. This, I feel, is Solness’s drama at the beginning of the play. His desires finally feel monstrous.

The company - Photo © Manuel Harlan from The Old Vic's Facebook page.
The company – Photo © Manuel Harlan from The Old Vic’s Facebook page.

There is a scene where I feel that Solness could be saved, when he kneels in front of Aline and starts to unravel his inner turmoil. I can imagine a world where the two finally discuss their pain and regret and yet when they are interrupted Solness says “oh thank God” (this is the brilliant work of David Hare who did the adaptation). The audience last night laughed but looking back, I think that was a tragic moment.

From that point on Solness struggles with a choice. Is he The Master Builder or is he Halvard Solness, warts and all? The title of the play, tells you all you need to know. There shall be no redemption for the man, even though there might be everlasting fame for the mask. And yet even that is uncertain – an uncertainty underlined by the genius of Rob Howell‘s stage set (give that man ten more Olivier awards). Throughout the play, we see suspended from the ceiling in the background the charred remains of a wooden building. The final breath of the company, the final breath of the play, the final breath of The Master Builder’s choice brings them all down with a loud bang as if with his death his house of cards finally collapses.

Disclosure: Saw The Master Builder at the Old Vic on 30 January 2016 and I paid for the ticket in full. No prior discussion with the theatre took place.
The Master Builder
The Old Vic
Adapted by David Hare. Director – Matthew Warchus. Designer – Rob Howell.

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