The Master Builder

Henrik Ibsen, a new version by David Edgar from a literal translation by Desiree Kongerod McDougall
A Chichester Festival Theatre Production
Minerva Theatre, Chichester

The Master Builder production photo by Manuel Harlan

A literal translation of The Master Builder, Edgar explains, would contain the language of the period, not instantly accessible to a modern audience, while transferring the text to a contemporary idiomatic version would perhaps sound contrived and false. It’s a fine balance and Edgar seems to have it about right, although I was still surprised to hear “That’s pretty bloody mean of you” from the lips of young Hilde Wangel when the costumes are late nineteenth century.

That aside, this is a particularly gripping and powerfully performed production by an exceptional seven-strong cast. Transformed into two acts from the original three, it is two hours of totally absorbing dramatic theatre, under Philip Franks’ direction as intriguing and exciting as a crime thriller and with disturbing Gothic-inspired undertones of dark forces at work within the psyche.

Master builder Halvard Solness is getting old. Having fought his way to the top, ruining others along the way, he is now afraid that the same thing will happen to him and youth will come knocking at the door and destroy him, probably in the form of his assistant, the young, earnest Ragnar Brovik (Philip Cumbus). His misgivings are justified, but not in the way he expects.

Michael Pennington commands the stage with authority and propels the narrative with a charisma and a caressingly flirtatious manner making Solness’ attraction for young girls seem perfectly plausible. His bookkeeper Kaja (Emily Wachter) follows him around with puppy-like devotion, despite being betrothed to Ragnar for the past five years.

Mirroring a little of Ibsen’s own life and his association with a much younger girl, Solness has had a brief amorous encounter with thirteen year old Hilde, who turns up on his doorstep unannounced ten years later and demands he keeps the promise he made to her at the time - something he has completely forgotten. Or maybe not, we can’t be sure. Naomi Frederick strides confidently and aggressively onto the stage, and into his life, as a very forthright Hilde, almost pugnacious and with mercurial changes of mood from wild and excitable anger to a strange and enthusiastic notion that she can maybe make something happen just by willing it. She wants to be a princess in a tower with the kingdom that Solness promised - a bit of a tall order but he tries, an attempt which, as the last few autumn leaves fall from the bare trees, leads to the final off-stage tragedy.

The powerful interaction between the two central figures tends to overshadow the remaining characters as the manipulative Solness finds himself inspired and manipulated in turn by Hilde, but Maureen Beattie manages to make her mark as Aline, the loyal wife. Bearing her burden of grief at the loss of her ancestral home and the subsequent death of her twin baby boys with a dignity which belies the pain, she views her husband’s liaisons with a bitter tolerance, but always aware of her ‘duty’ she carries on, holding herself erect and her head up high.

The modern language and eerie ‘other world‘ connotations sit together quite strangely at times, but make for a very accessible and compelling production.

Until 9th October.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor

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