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The Master Builder

Photo by Manuel Harlan

The Old Vic presents THE MASTER BUILDER, by Henrik Ibsen. A new adaptation by David Hare, at The Old Vic, London, U.K. 23 Jan – 19 March, 2016.

According to the Old Vic program notes, by Nick Curtis, on this production of Henrik Ibsen’s THE MASTER BUILDER:

Today, (Ibsen) is the second most performed playwright in the world, after Shakespeare, and seen as the inheritor to Shakespeare’s mantle as a poetic explorer of the human condition.

THE MASTER BUILDER is a play not often seen in Australia.

Henrik Ibsen has, for me, three distinct phases in his writing output. The early plays are mostly verse texts influenced by historical subjects and native folk tales, culminating with BRAND (1865), a discourse on God and free will (unhappily, I have never seen a production), and PEER GYNT (1867), a blending of social satire and philosophical musings with fairytale figures and trolls!  The middle plays are concerned with the critiquing of the social/political ‘habits’ of the world he lived in, the so-called Realist plays, begun with  PILLARS OF SOCIETY (1877), followed by A DOLL’S HOUSE (1879), GHOSTS (1882), THE WILD DUCK (1885), ROSMERSHOLM (1887), THE LADY FROM THE SEA (1889) and HEDDA GABLER, premiering in 1891. All were sensations of controversy and contemporary confrontations in their time, and are, still, today. Amazing. In 1893, Ibsen wrote THE MASTER BUILDER, and in hindsight, one can say it was the first play of his third phase of writing where he began to investigate a more spiritual and metaphysical world, just as an older man/artist of great searching of the world might begin to do.

THE MASTER BUILDER, for me, sits at the beginning of his return to a more poetical/prose style and verges on a surreal vision that comes to theatrical climax, after LITTLE EYOLF (1895) and JOHN GABRIEL BORKMAN (1897), with his last play, WHEN WE DEAD AWAKEN (1900) – when, (can you believe it?), a tumultuous snow avalanche, at the play’s ending, sweeps his characters, away, to obliteration (unhappily, I have never seen a production of this mighty play, either). THE MASTER BUILDER can have some difficulties of comprehension for an audience used only to the famous seven Realist dramas finishing with HEDDA GABLER, unless placed within the evolving context of Ibsen’s writing trajectory – for this play has the urges of the metaphysical in the environment of a real architecture of authentic time and place, and it can  be a puzzlement, because of that artistic leap of ambition, development, perhaps.

A Master Builder (not architect) of domestic homes, Halvard Solness, fears that his career is in threat from the up-and-coming young and is visited by a young woman, Hilde Wangel, who has come to claim the ‘kingdom’ he had promised her, after a kiss, when she was a child of 13, and becomes inspired and tempted to do just such a thing. Encouraged with her urgings, he climbs the tower of his latest project to place the symbolic wreath at the top of his building as a gesture to her spirit, despite his fear of heights.

Ibsen, now in his sixties, was fascinated by an emerging new generation of writers and by a succession of young female companions, most notably the student Emilie Bardach and the pianist Hildur Andersen – both of whom have been cited as models for Hilde. In what some have observed is an auto-biographical reveal of Ibsen’s state-of-mind, after the knock at the door, Hilde Wangel, enters the office of Halvard Solness, an energetic force of ripening freshness that could threaten the hard held beliefs and stability of the self-consciously fearful Master Builder (Writer).

The writing in the play has the complex construction of symbol and metaphor, step-by-step, that has become a familiar and much admired craft-mark of Ibsen. David Hare talks of his adapting:

There can never be any such thing as a word-by-word translation … No one tongue perfectly parallels another. Nuances abundant in a word in one language are entirely absent in a second. My job therefore is to pitch a play so that the resonances intended by the play of words in one language seem still to be sparking in an entirely different time and culture.

Ibsen himself believed and requested that his plays be presented in what he called ‘the everyday speech of the time’ and that no one translation could ever become standard. The great difficulty of this play is the movement in the play from the everyday to the metaphysical, for the play works at many levels of comprehension – the mythic, the psychological and the sub-conscious. This text in the mouths of the actors at The Old Vic seems alive and of now – the speakability and sound to our ears modern and vital. The strong shape of the arguments in this text are held together by the musical ‘scoring’ that Mr Hare has made in his intelligent, ‘contemporary’ language choices and moment-by-moment structure. Above all, Ibsen was a musical writer. Mr Hare observes:

He loved music and aimed for a theatre which in its formal movement would closely resemble music. He wanted abstraction, emotional power and human detail but, above all, shape.

In this production, by Matthew Warchus, the musical tempos of the adaptation, are thrilling to hear. Ralph Fiennes, as Solness, and Sarah Snook, as Hilde, hold the stage together, in long scenes of duologue, of intellectual and emotional give-and-take, giving a thrilling duel of empathetic vocal skill and textual nuance, with all the appearance of the spontaneous instant of acute listening concentration for both content and musical renderings, from each to the other. The text, the play, lives vitally. There is no shadow of a text of another century present. Neither actor gives quarter to the other and both earn their stage time together and seem to encourage each other to a kind of Bravura energy and power that generates down into their respective physical gestures – the whole of their body instrument supporting the vocal and emotional state of the character’s arguments – suiting the action to the word, the word to the action, indeed. The acting of the respective journeys of these two characters, by Mr Fiennes and Ms Snook, is indelibly drawn: Hilde’s siren call of enthusiastic and ripening youth leading the aged, vain and frightened Solness to derring-do of outrageous challenge. Magical, mysterious and full of the ‘life force’ (sexual tensions) that Shaw wrote of in his battle between Anne Whitefield and Jack Tanner in MAN AND SUPERMAN (1903) – and why not, for Shaw was a great admirer of Ibsen.

The other conspicuously wonderful performance in this production comes from Linda Emond, as Aline Solness, the distraught and anguished wife of Solness, a role that on paper may seem to be bogged and weighted with textual imagery that in these post-Freudian times may seem to be overwritten, overwrought – strained – but becomes in the simmering delicacy of the artistry of this actor, a grief of tangible poetic depth, moving, in its power of a lived experience.

The other performers: Charlie Cameron (Kaja Fosli), James Dreyfus (Dr Herdal), Martin Hutson (Ragnor Brovik), James Laurenson (Knut Brevik) give embodied supporting clarity to the literary structure of the writing in their character and poetic function.

The Design of a stripped back set of realities: the working office, the library and the garden of the house, is enshrouded within the abstracted ‘skeleton’ of a black-burnt frame of a house – the lost family home of Aline, haunted by the ghosts of children and ‘dolls’ and all the intimate memories of the growing-up, the past – by Rob Howell, the real and the mythic, which is sustained visually to support the balancing emotions of the narrative with Lighting by Hugh Vanstone, and a carefully placed Music (Gary Yershon) and Sound Design (Simon Baker).

This production of THE MASTER BUILDER, which I saw twice, had the contemporary thrill of its relevance thrust at us with acting of a highly invested kind, resonant with a bristling intelligence and sure-handedness of intent and vision from all of the artists involved. A classic production of a Classic play that allowed its audience to enter and endow the experience without directorial auteurism. It demonstrated a confidence in the intrinsic value and integrity of a play written 119 years ago. If Sydney Directors had such confidence, insight and trust, in playwrights, one could feel more assured about spending one’s money and time in going to the theatre, here.

Sarah Snook was making her London debut at the historic The Old Vic Theatre. This production is travelling to Broadway, later this year.

Some of you may have recognised the name of one of the supporting actors, James Laurenson, as the star of the 1971-72, Australian television series called BONEY, in which he played a part Aboriginal detective called Napoleon Bonaparte. The casting, I remember, controversial  – even then.