The Master and Brunhilda

The Master Builder by Henrik Ibsen, Directed by Matthew Warchus, with Ralph Fiennes, The Old Vic, London, Monday 7 March

In some senses, Ibsen wrote the same play, with the same group of characters, many times. He even revisited the same theme, with variations, in play after play; that the external, the outward show of Norwegian society, concealed a canker within, a dishonesty, waiting to erupt.

Halvard Solness, the eponymous Master Builder, just as other pivotal characters in other Ibsen plays, has a very high opinion of himself, however much he may express his doubts as to his sanity, or guilt. His frailties are simply one of the means by which he elevates himself above the common run. He has built a little kingdom for himself, in his architect's practice, with the insignificant moons that circle about him: his old adversary, now sick and dying, the old man's son, the Master Builder's drudge, who hates himself and his employer, more or less equally, and the son's fiancé, hopelessly in love with the Master Builder, but used by him.

And as always, the Master Builder has a wife, and the wife has an ambiguous relationship with an older man, in this case a doctor. This older man always seems to have inside information as to the peccadilloes hidden in the marriage and these secrets are sure to come roaring onto the stage over the course of the evening. There is always the hint too, that the doctor wouldn't be above using his knowledge to an unsavoury end.

And there is always a character who bursts onto the scene, usually from the past, sowing chaos and, ultimately, catharsis. That character in The Master Builder is Hilda Wangel, a young twenty-three year old, who first met the Master Builder ten years earlier. She appears initially in the guise of her 13 year old self, flirting with the older man in an entirely girlish, and innocent way. The Master Builder is, of course, above any sort of temptation from behaviour of this sort.

He invites her to stay, she apparently having no where else to go, and suggests to his wife that she be given one of the nursery rooms. Thus the first hint of the great drama of the Master Builder's life, the loss of his children and the destruction of his wife's family home in a fire.

So far so Ibsen. The set even has a couple of small ferns on a bookcase in the second act.

As much as this production, a new adaptation by David Hare, is a star vehicle for Ralph Feinnes, it is the character of Hilda who provides the driving force and the dramatic interest. 

Hilda is an angel of death, a homicidal psychopath, a fantasist with the confidence of youth and the drive and energy to turn her fantasies into reality. She is one of the great dramatic creations of the 19th Century.

But unfortunately, in this production, she is played entirely, beginning to end, on one note. And that note is hale and hearty, like a new presenter on Countryfile wanting to make a good impression, a spritely Clarissa Dickson Wright, standing no nonsense in relation to climbing tall buildings. 'Get up there, boy! Of course you can shoot that gun, skin that rabbit with your bare hands.'

Though Hilda seems to want to bounce right off the stage into the top circle, this is a very static production. The actors almost never move and they certainly don't venture into the wilds of the set. The action, such as it is, takes place in a narrow band along the front. Has this been produced with an eye on the live stream to cinemas, to television?

Whether or not, the essence of the play, the way Ibsen managed to bring those extremes of behaviour, the volcanic forces which underlie the calm surface of social interaction into apparently recognisable domestic situations, that essence has been destroyed. All the actors behave as if they are presenting a metaphor, of which only they are cognisant, and which remains entirely mysterious to the audience. Are they trying to comment on the disastrous property situation in the capital, the garden bridge project, the towering apartment blocks, 1 Hyde Place. We can't tell. Certainly, apart from a kind of stylist approach to speaking the dialogue, it's all naturalism.

What is missed is the way the Master Builder's world, constructed by him with such care, the way he thinks his fantasies are so extraordinary, that he's been able to bend those around him to his will, that when he meets Hilda, who really does have an ability to create castles in the air, his world collapses. He can't compete. He is vanquished utterly.

Ibsen isn't naturalism as we understand the style today, having a century of film behind us. His plays were melodrama, they contained characters who were larger than life, who could embody that which was beyond the every day. A static, naturalist approach, with sets simply background, with stage movement curtailed, with actors reduced to closeups, just to be able to show these plays in cinemas, this isn't theatre, this is a real tragedy.

Paul Corcoran