'The Master Builder' review or 'There is a castle on a cloud...'

The Master Builder, Ibsen (Hare)
The Old Vic Theatre, 8th February 2016

Ralph Fiennes is so completely compelling in ‘The Master Builder’ that the play itself – a late Ibsen classic - is almost irrelevant. It’s enough just to feel the heat burn right off him. It’s actually a little frightening to watch Fiennes perform - quite a vulnerable feeling, really – since it becomes impossible not to feel what his character is feeling. Fiennes’ ageing, proud and frightened Master Builder rises up to dizzy and fantastical heights and we float up with him. He plummets down to awful depths, guilty and fearful, and we plummet down beside him. It is quite a bleedin’ trip.

It’s lucky Fiennes’ performance is quite so powerful since the rest of Matthew Warchus’ grand production is a little bit patchy. David Hare’s translation is perfectly clear – smooth and a little spooky – but Rob Howell’s overtly symbolic set (which is made up of a vast wooden construction that gradually deconstructs) and Warchus’ hand-holding direction (a high pitch ring underscores each significant moment) feels a tad overdone. It’s as if we’re being gently guided through the show rather than dropped right in and left – rather exhilaratingly – to sink or swim.

The women also get a raw deal. In fact, they barely get a deal at all. Charlie Cameron as Fiennes’ plaything, Kaja, is particularly grating and seems strangely cartoonish, with her wide eyes and hammy delivery. But it’s Hilde Wangel – the wild creature who brings Ralph Fiennes’ Master Builder tumbling down – that’s particularly disappointing. I’ve seen productions of The Master Builder, such as 2010 Almeida show starring Gemma Arterton, that are more about Hilde than the eponymous builder himself. Not so here. Sarah Snooks’ interpretation takes some getting used to. In fact, I’m still struggling to get on board.

When Snook first bursts onto the stage she is all pigtails and swooshing skirts and looks like a rather robust extra from The Sound of Music who has lost her way. She booms out her dialogue, chomps heartily on an apple and stomps about in great big walking boots. She’s more like an overgrown child than an alluring ingénue. I struggle to understand this approach. The Master Builder is, at its core, a depiction of a middle aged man in a crisis; a man who has begun to question his dominance, his legacy, his virility. It’s a play that ripples with sexual energy – which is why it feels very odd to rip the sex right out of the heart of this production. Hilde begins to feel like an odd yet harmless echo – there to question and expose the Master Builder, but with little presence or agency of her own.

It doesn’t half take the heat out of the show and there’s a wildness to Hilde – and the play as a whole – that never quite catches fire. When Hilde and Fiennes’ builder kiss near the end of the play it feels weirdly inappropriate, a separate part of the play rather than an eerie and sensual climax. But there is still Fiennes and, to be honest, his performance has the whole play bundled up inside of it. He is all the contradictions that Ibsen’s play holds. Fiennes builder is solid as a rock when he wants to be, moulded to his chair and the stock image of a man who refuses to change. But Fiennes’ builder also embodies change and decay and it is a wonder to watch him transform in Hilde’s presence:  Fiennes’ limbs become soft and limp as if his very skeleton might realign and start again.


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