“I have underwear in my haversack”
I have made no secret of my issues with Ibsen on this blog: he is a playwright whom I have never really ‘got’ and whose enduring popularity at theatre houses baffles me, I struggle to see what relevance much of his work has to audiences today. So when the Almeida announced a production of The Master Builder as their winter show it was with a slightly heavy heart that I booked tickets: I do try to keep my mind open to the chance that one day something might suddenly click, indeed I was in Manchester to see The Lady From The Sea just last week. And funnily enough, if you had to pick two Ibsen plays to see this close together, then it might as well be these two as to my surprise, they feature a recurring character in Hilde Wangel.
With a new translation by Kenneth McLeish, director Travis Preston has created a minimalist, modern-dress production of this cautionary tale of the drive for ambition at all costs. Halvard Solness is a self-made master builder, lacking in training but dominant in his small town world with a towering reputation that he zealously protects. This single-mindedness has had a corrosive effect on those around him though: his employees fear him and his wife is a mere shadow of her former self, the couple having suffered unimaginable tragedy with the death of twin sons and the ramifications of which still reverberate strongly for both of them. Into this world arrives Hilde, a young woman who claims a past connection with Solness and offers an alternative to the emotional paralysis that characterises his life but one which leads up a dangerous path. I must admit to being quite pleased to see a modern-day version of an Ibsen work for once, but having never seen The Master Builder before, you will have read elsewhere for commentary on any changes that have been made.
The Almeida really has been transformed by Vicki Mortimer’s spacious design, there really is more room than I ever remember seeing there: stripped way back to weather-worn brick, an iron staircase snakes up the rear wall disappearing into the heavens, giving width and depth and the floor is covered in earth, adding unpredictability to the actors’ movements. And although it is played in modern-dress, it is probably more accurate to describe it as having a timeless feel, reflecting how the interrogation of the psyche does not have to be pinned to a certain date to achieve significance.
It is hard not to see Stephen Dillane’s performance outside of the context of the reception of his Prospero in The Tempest earlier this year and the much-reported audibility issues that many people had with his interpretation, especially as he raises his voice quite a lot here, the less charitable amongst might say he was over-compensating. He plays tormented well with a haunted look in his eyes but it is with Gemma Arterton’s excellent Hilde that he, and the play, really comes alive. She is a bewitching, enigmatic stage presence which is perfect for this character who defies easy explanation: sometimes benevolent in her encouragements, sometimes reckless, Arterton has a bright-eyed playfulness about her which really works, making for a convincing agent provocateur who could just possibly be a figment of Solness’ imagination.
Anastasia Hille brings a tightly repressed coolness and fragility to her Aline and her relationship, or lack thereof, with Dillane’s Solness is excellently sketched, both firmly in denial of the truth of the state of their marriage and her final collapse makes perfect sense. Patrick Godfrey and John Light did well as Brovik senior and junior respectively and Emma Hamilton battled gamely in the soil with her heels with her puppyish besotted Kaja but it was Jack Shepherd’s Dr Herdal who was my favourite of the supporting performances.
As a preview, things are clearly subject to change but I have to admit to being very unsure about some of the staging choices: Hille’s entrance with a slow motion descent down the staircase felt like it could have come from Cheek By Jowl’s Macbeth in which she played Lady M but there wasn’t anything else like it in the show, likewise I quite liked the way in which supporting players often hung around the edges of the stage as scenes played out but I couldn’t see the consistency or the logic in the way it was done and I wasn’t a fan of the vocal effects towards the end which pushed dangerously close to melodrama. Overall the staging ideas felt underdeveloped and the impressionistic feel not carried through the whole production enough. Paul Pyant’s lighting was beautifully done though, spearing the gloom with shafts of light and heightening the atmosphere.
Ultimately it seems that Ibsen can never win with me. For once taken out of the period Norwegian milieu and with a heavily symbolic storyline that isn’t quite so tethered to the turn-of-the-century mindset like Ghosts and its syphilis and so many of the others that deal with the position of women in society then, yet it still just didn’t capture me. The play felt so weighed down with symbolism and mysteriousness, and this is reinforced by the production here, that it just didn’t engage my emotions at all. Arterton is fantastic though and this should help to solidify her burgeoning reputation as an intriguing actress, not just a pretty face in guilty-pleasure-type Hollywood blockbusters.