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5-star The Master Builder at the Old Vic – Review

Ralph Fiennes starring in The Master Builder
Ralph Fiennes starring in The Master Builder – Photo by Manuel Harlan

The  story of The Master Builder can be told in one sentence: An ageing builder meets a passionate young girl who gives him, so he thinks, a new lease of life and a return of creative energy that both restores and destroys him.

Warning: This review contains spoilers for those that have not seen the production

Within this simple framework, Ibsen considers the whole subject of age and youth, of  idealism, of dream and reality of, in fact all of life and death. The play resonates on many levels and Ibsen uses many kinds of mythological and psychological symbolism to deal with his theme. There are poetic  images of towers, houses, of wreaths, of children, dolls, trolls, songs cheers, telepathy and fire.

The play is a tortured consideration of the human condition, its aspirations and its failure. If this sounds complicated, it is. However, in David Hare’s magnificent translation and Mathew Warchus’ brilliantly perceptive production, each moment surprises us with the tragic clarity of human life.

The play is one that responds to a variety of interpretations: an earlier production was based on the theory that the entire play was a figment of the hero’s imagination. This production takes an interesting point of view: is Solness, the Master Builder, insane? He might be – his terror of youth, his terror of heights all make him appear to be walking a fine line of rational thought. Ralph Fiennes is superb from the beginning, moving with the tense measured steps of a man holding himself together in case of attack. The set bears this out: in front of a dark grove of trees there is a backdrop of assorted geometric shapes in an arbitrary arrangement, like pieces of the Master Builder’s mind. In front of this abstract image, the interiors are small and realistic, the whole thing bringing to mind Marianne Moore’s definition of poetry as ‘imaginary gardens with real toads in them.’

What is real and what is fantasy? Which memories are real? This question immediately arises with the entrance of Sarah Snook as Hilde. Ms Snook gives an extraordinary performance. Her intensity and self absorbed dedication are riveting, but are they real?  Is she telling the truth or are her memories of Solness’ kisses and promises the fantasies of a disturbed mind? Ms Snook teases us with both possibilities. Her Hilde is so focused on her own youthfully passionate need – (‘I want  my kingdom’ she insists) that she appears to be almost literally blind to everything else around her. Her own reality is her only reality. Her performance was extremely disturbing and I could not take my eyes off her. If her desire for ‘castles in the air with firm foundations’ sounded  unreal and childlike, it was  easy to see how she could seduce a man like Solness, who is terrified of the loss of his sexual and creative powers. ‘You are everything I’ve been missing’ Solness says and how many men have said this to a young and adoring woman? And yet it didn’t sound trite but desperately sad.

Hilde’s presence is also linked symbolically to the death of the two sons which destroyed Solness’s family life and happiness. Hilde even sleeps in the children’s room as if she has come not only as his spiritual guide and lover but also his child. The final image, with Hilde wildly pushing herself higher and higher on a children’s swing, calling out to Solness as he climbs to his destruction is unforgettable.

The two leads are extraordinary as is the direction. The rest of the cast is hard working and satisfactory if not exactly revelatory. The Master Builder is one of those plays that can and should be revived every few years if only to give audiences the  opportunity to see how a great actor asks some of the biggest questions about what it means to be human.

5 Star Rating

Review by Kate Beswick

Ralph Fiennes stars in Henrik Ibsen’s late masterpiece THE MASTER BUILDER at The Old Vic.
This searing and mesmeric exploration of power, control, death and life, in a lively new adaptation by David Hare (multi-award-winning writer and author of 32 plays for the stage including Skylight, The Absence Of War, Amy’s View, Pravda and Stuff Happens) will be directed by Old Vic Artistic Director Matthew Warchus.

Halvard Solness, a master architect, has spent his lifetime building the tallest spires in the land. But when Hilde, a radiant country girl, descends unexpectedly into his world, age is confronted by youth, and a series of revelations builds to a vertiginous climax.


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