Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

The Master Builder

Henrik Ibsen
Malvern Theatres (now touringr)
(2003)

Spring, and the grand old man of Norwegian drama is bursting out everywhere, it seems. Hard on the heels of Ingmar Bergman’s adaptation of Ghosts at the Barbican and with major productions of The Lady from the Sea and Brand currently playing, comes a new, West End-bound interpretation of The Master Builder, starring Patrick Stewart, late of the USS Enterprise. (Malvern Theatres itself hosted a new production of John Gabriel Borkman earlier this year.)

Reportedly Freud’s favourite play, The Master Builder is a study of obsession and infatuation. The eponymous builder Solness is trapped in a loveless, sterile and guilt-ridden marriage to Aline (Sue Johnston, best known for her roles in TV dramas Brookside and The Royle Family).

He has ruthlessly pursued his career at the expense of everything and everyone else, but now youth is snapping at his heels and the game, he believes, is up. But when the beautiful young Hilde, (the excellent Lisa Dillon) arrives to stay, taking up an earlier invitation from his wife, Solness’s ambition, lust for life and love are re-awakened, with typically tragic consequences.

Solness is not the only character obsessed, however. Hilde has come to claim a pledge she says he made more than a decade earlier while she was still a child when he called her his princess and told her he would return to ‘claim’ her. "I want my kingdom," she tells him. Aline is haunted by loss, principally by the death, years before, of twin boys, weeks after being born.

The play is dense, suffused with symbolism, sometimes clumsily so – Solness’s obsession with constructing tall towers offering an obvious Freudian interpretation, but also echoing the ambition and fate of the builders of the Tower of Babel – but written with customary psychological insight and sympathy, born out of a similar experience in his own life when, aged 61 and long famous, Ibsen fell in love with – later rejecting - a woman some 20 years his junior.

The acting is of a high standard. But, as with Brand and John Gabriel Borkman, the play stands or falls by its central performance. Stewart, of course, is a distinguished and highly experienced actor and does a lot of things very well indeed in this production, but he didn’t convince me that he was a man rendered "raw", as he describes himself to Hilde, by obsession, fear of madness.

Perhaps it is Stewart’s own apparently somewhat cerebral personality – I would hesitate to suggest that by spending ten years in a sci-fi soap, Stewart had hoisted himself with his own Picard. Johnston, solitary, consumed by grief, is very good. For me though, it is Lisa Dillon, who received rave reviews earlier this year in the Crucible Theatre’s adaptation of Iphigenia, who gives the key performance which, by itself, is worth the price of admission to this fine production.

Philip Fisher reviewed this production when it reached the West End's Albery Theatre

Reviewer: Pete Wood