The Master Builder
Henrik Ibsen, adapted by John Logan
Review by Philip Fisher
There are many people who will be unaware, as they watch Star Trek - The Next Generation or X-Men that the star, Patrick Stewart, is a classically-trained English actor who spent 26 years with the RSC.
He brings all of that experience to bear in his role as Halvard Solness, the eponymous master builder in this late play by Ibsen. This is a man whose terrible loss and angry pride are heading for an inevitable fall. In this production, one sees with stark clarity that the Master Builder is a Faustian character who, whether consciously or otherwise, has sold his soul to a ruthless devil.
A lively new adaptation by John Logan is played out within three vastly expensive sets designed by Hildegard Bechtler, which contrasted so well with each other that the last two drew spontaneous applause from the audience.
The first act, set in Solness' dreary, lifeless office, introduces us to a man who initially enters with the demeanour and plod of a grim undertaker. He is soon heartlessly berating his assistant, Ragnar (Adrian Scarborough) and the man that he had walked over to achieve his esteemed status, that man's dying father, Knut (Edward de Sousa). At the same time, he flirts cruelly with Ragnar's fiancee Kaia (Katherine Manners).
The story dramatically unfolds in the second act in the family's bright airy living room. Here under Anthony Page's expert direction, the audience begins to understand why Solness is the way this he is and why his wife, played by former Brookside and The Royle Family star Sue Johnston, is almost always on the brink of tears.
The tragedy that struck the family together with the Master Builder's womanising have become too much for her to bear but while she shows her distress on the surface, in some ways her husband's reaction, in attempting to suppress it, is worse.
Gradually, following the arrival of the tiny, blonde Hilda Wangel, a kind of deus ex machina who acts as therapist to both husband and wife, Solness begins to see a chance for release from his inner terrors. Hilda is played by an initially over-enthusiastic, breathless Lisa Dillon - recently seen in Cambridge Spies.
The final act takes place in the Solness garden in a forest. As the sets increase in height, the oppression lifts so the acts lead from despair through hope to release. Page builds the tension to a thrilling finale with the whole cast except the hero, heart-rendingly staring out at the audience.
This production is distinguished by strong performances from Stewart in particular as he wrestles with his inner demons; Miss Dillon, especially in the last act as she urges on Solness to simultaneous destruction and freedom; and the lower-key Miss Johnston.
Anthony Page has done a very good job in bringing together a big name cast that can act on stage, a glorious set and a fast-paced adaptation that brings out much of Ibsen's deep symbolism. It ultimately reaches a pitch of excitement that has the audience sitting on the edge of its collective seat. This one could run and run.
Pete Wood has also reviewed this production, during its pre-West End tour.