Play of the week: Ralph Fiennes brings a powerful intensity to Ibsen’s masterpiece

David Hare's adaptation is a fresh and unsettling study of a mid-life crisis - but it could have done without two intervals, finds Ben Dowell

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Henrik Ibsen’s 1892 play is the epic and surreal story of master builder Halvard Solness, his dying marriage and the resurgence that he feels when a bewitching itinerant comes to stay.

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It is an exploration of a mid-life crisis that delves into Halvard’s conscious and unconscious traumas. So much so that some people claim the whole play takes place inside his head (not a view I share). Ibsen paints a mysterious and sometimes frightening world where characters talk of the intervention of trolls. Those Norwegian fairy-tale characters feel just out of reach, though not entirely absent.

It’s an impressive production from director Matthew Warchus. Ralph Fiennes’s Halvard is a beautifully judged study of turmoil and depression as the master builder reflects on his past and his life with the distraught Aline (an affecting Linda Emond). Their marriage has never recovered from the deaths of their twin baby sons over a decade ago following a house fire. (The babies did not die in the conflagration – Aline contracted a fever following the night-time evacuation and passed it on through her infected milk.) 

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Linda Emond and Ralph Fiennes 

Halvard benefited from the tragedy, rebuilding the destroyed house and making his name while his wife was bereft. He feels guilty, depressed, trapped, but then Hilde Wangel bounds into his life, claiming the “kingdom” he promised her when she was a 13-year-old girl. She is both super-fan and nemesis rolled into one.

Sexual tension is deployed from the off when Hilde (played by Sarah Snook, who does not quite capture her character’s teasing allure) shows off a thigh in a moment which is not exactly overburdened with subtlety. But Fiennes is still able to modulate his performance superbly: his shoulders relax and he lights up in the face of the intriguing interloper, to the intense pain of his wife who already suspects him (incorrectly) of having an affair with his assistant.


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The only duff decision is imposing two 20-minute intervals on a play that lasts nearly three hours as a result. They’re an irritating disruption necessary – you suspect – because of the monumental scene changes. The set includes a massive tilted dish and tangled branches that evoke the torment emanating from inner and outer structures. This gives way in the middle act to a library scene with huge bookcases, which reflect the ordered thought and control that Solness has always tried to impose on his environment.

That said, David Hare’s adaptation is fresh and up-to-date. Ibsen insisted that his plays should always be performed in the “everyday speech of their time” and Hare does just that. The result is a powerful production of a masterly and intriguing play.

I only wish it hadn’t been interrupted twice.

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Fiennes and Sarah Snook as Hilde Wangel

The Master Builder is showing at the Old Vic until 19th March


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You can now book tickets for The Master Builder from the Radio Times box office