Ralph Fiennes has done it again! Following his success playing the massive part of Jack Tanner in Man and Superman, at The National Theatre, he is now wowing us as Halvard Solness in David Hare’s new adaptation of Ibsen’s The Master Builder. He really is a tour de force and stands up there amongst the great actors of recent times.
The Master Builder is a story of a self-made man who has become increasingly frightened of being displaced by the young. Due to his successful career as an architect, Solness is now a dominant figure in the town and has no wish for his assistant, Ragnar Brovik, to take over the business, or, indeed, set up on his own. The architect’s marriage to his wife Aline is strained due to the tragedy of them losing their twin babies in a fire in his wife’s beloved childhood home. She is becoming increasingly convinced that her husband is suffering from mental health issues, so continually summons the family doctor, Herdal, to visit him. When a young girl called Hilde Wangel arrives unannounced, persuading him to remember that they had met ten years earlier when she was just fourteen-years-old, Solness grows progressively infatuated. On that occasion he had made advances towards her and promised that ten years on they would meet again and he would offer her a kingdom. This fey, otherworldly young creature has come to claim these ‘castles in the sky’ but real life gets in the way. Refusing to believe that Solness has a morbid fear of heights, she goads him into climbing the high tower of his latest creation, to devastating effect.
That Solness is a troubled soul, with many issues, is never in any doubt. Various happenings in his life have given him the belief that he only has to wish for something to happen in order for it to come about. In his mind, this is a gift bestowed on him from God and that he has been ordained to spend the remainder of his career building churches. Hilde, in believing the fairytale promise Solness made her all those years ago, becomes his enabler and continually eggs him on. As the story progresses, we are privy to his confused inner world and symbolism begins to replace the realism of the earlier scenes. It is very much a play of these two different styles and all credit to David Hare’s excellent adaptation and Ralph Fiennes equally excellent portrayal that the whole production gels so beautifully. Oh and let’s not forget the third piece of the puzzle that fits it all together, the remarkable directing skills of Matthew Warchus.
The remaining cast is no slouch either and I particularly enjoyed the performances of the American Linda Emond as Aline and Australian Sarah Snook as Hilde. Their accents are pretty much spot on and Aline is very effecting in the final two acts, when she is slightly less ‘buttoned up’. Hilde Wangel is a difficult part to play, balancing as she has to the ethereal childlike energy of the young woman with the sexy tease. For the most part Sarah Snook manages this extremely well.
The Master Builder, although written in 1893, doesn’t feel dated, thanks to David Hare’s interpretation. The dialogue seems very alive and fresh and the realistic theme of an older man’s infatuation with a young girl will always be relevant. In fact it is thought that Hilde is based on a blend of three women, Emilie Bardach an eighteen-year-old Viennese student with whom Ibsen had a brief affair, Helene Raff, an acquaintance of Bardach’s and Hildur Andersen, a ten-year-old child of friends who, at the age of twenty-seven, became his constant companion.
This is yet another one of Ibsen’s plays that has recently been produced which more than honours one of the truly great playwrights.