Review: Ralph Fiennes Gives Towering Performance In The Master Builder

The Master Builder, Old Vic Theatre ★★★★☆

Neil Dowden
By Neil Dowden Last edited 24 months ago
Review: Ralph Fiennes Gives Towering Performance In The Master Builder The Master Builder, Old Vic Theatre 4
Ralph Fiennes (Halvard Solness) and Sarah Snook (Hilde Wangel) in The Master Builder at The Old Vic. Photos by Manuel Harlan.

Ibsen’s 1892 play The Master Builder marks a change of style from social realism towards the metaphysical symbolism of his late phase. With its mention of Vikings, trolls and Nordic folklore, its story of a successful middle-aged architect afraid of being overtaken by a younger generation takes on a mythic quality. And with Ralph Fiennes giving a commanding, multifaceted performance in the title role the psychological drama maintains its high-wire tension throughout.

Master Builder Halvard Solness may seem to be at the height of his powers, but his suppression of his talented young assistant betrays a deep insecurity, while his guilt-ridden marriage has been blighted by the death of twin baby sons as a result of the burning down of his wife’s family home, which gave him the big break he needed in his architectural career. When the 24-year-old free-spirited Hilde Wangel turns up out of the blue demanding the ‘kingdom’ that she claims he promised her 10 years earlier, he feels rejuvenated but her urging him to build a ‘castle in the air’ may push him over the edge.

Solness is probably another Ibsen self-portrait, of an unhappily married artist who has had to make a ‘sacrifice’, while Hilde may be based on a young woman with whom he had a brief affair when in his 60s. On one level, The Master Builder depicts a mid-life crisis, with steeples as Freudian phallic symbols, but it’s also an archetypal account of hubris with Solness having stopped building churches now erecting a steeple on his new house (which with its empty nursery will still not be a home).

David Hare’s new adaptation stays loyal to Ibsen’s psychodrama while sharpening the dialogue. Matthew Warchus’s excellent production achieves a nice balance between naturalistic and poetic, with Rob Howell’s impressive three-act design (necessitating two intervals) moving from studio to study to garden, with a shifting wooden construct suggesting off-kilter building projects and branches twisted into crosses evoking a ghostly backdrop.

Following on from his performance as John Tanner in Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman at the National Theatre last year, Fiennes gives another tremendous representation of flawed, arrogant masculinity overcome by a tenacious woman who sees the chink in his armour, though here romantic comedy is replaced by tragic overreaching. Sarah Snook’s unconventional, dynamic Hilde is a blast of fresh air from the mountainside, a ‘New Woman’ cum femme fatale who dreams of an alternative reality. Linda Edmond is a dignified, still-grieving Mrs Solness aware of her husband’s roving eye, but concerned for his mental state.

And there is good support from James Laurenson as Solness’s superseded former mentor and Martin Hutson as his frustrated son desperate to start his own practice and marry fiancée Charlie Cameron in thrall to her boss the Master Builder, who is clinging on to his superior position but terrified of the downfall of retribution.

The Master Builder is on at the Old Vic, The Cut, London SE1 8NB until 19 March. Tickets £12-£60. Londonist saw this production on a complimentary ticket.

Last Updated 08 February 2016