The Master Builder, Almeida Theatre, London


A masterful modern restoration

Stephen Dillane and American director Travis Preston last joined forces at the Almeida with an eerie one-man Macbeth that presented Shakespeare's tragedy as a waking dream, a hideous emanation of the Scot's tormented consciousness.

There's a similar feel to this drastically minimalist account of Ibsen's Master Builder, another play in which an ambitious hero fears that his success is a spooky product of illicit desires. Denuded of all the trappings of frock-coated, claustrophobic Victorian propriety, the piece is transformed into a compelling, shadow-filled, modern-dress psychodrama, played without a break – as though in the master builder's skull – on a stark earth-covered set with an iron staircase ominously disappearing up the back wall of the theatre into the heavens.

Halvard Solness is an ageing architect, haunted by guilt at his destruction of others in his path to the top, and now paranoid about younger rivals. "The rising generation – they'll come knocking at my door," he tells his wife's doctor. Whereupon, with a grimly farcical promptness, there's a banging at the Almeida's entrance and up the aisle marches the challenge of youth in the seductive, rucksack-toting shape of Gemma Arterton's magnetic, unsettling Hilde. This newcomer turns out to be Solness's nemesis, for the unanticipated irony that she's his number one admirer. Hilde never got over the girlhood thrill of watching him climb up and garland one of his lofty church towers. Ten years on, she is back to demand the kingdom she claims he promised her and to egg him on to repeat the vertiginous feat that will prove his downfall.

The superb Arterton transmits the creepy sense that Hilde is both a bewitching breath of fresh air and a reckless fanatic, wired differently from the normal world; wise beyond her years, yet strangely arrested; uninhibited, but living vicariously through her hero in gasping, pre-orgasmic rapture. Dillane's subtle Solness stares into her eyes with a beautiful mix of intimate recognition and baffled, infinite wonder. That he may have willed her into existence is signalled in the subjective, abstract staging. Casting huge, phantasmagoric silhouettes on the back wall, the pair unconsciously mirror body language, kneeling and craning towards each other in hushed complicity.

There's a price for Preston's directorial concept. The proceedings float weightlessly – a symbolic upper-storey without a ground-floor of mundane reality. The updating makes Hilde less of a provocation to prevailing values, the dangerous wild child not uncommon in contemporary life. And there are moments of absurdity, as when Anastasia Hille, deeply moving as Solness's desolate, duty-bound wife, waters a wooden chair, like no one has told her that you can't make furniture grow.

But there's much to admire – not least Kenneth Macleish's fine translation that makes witty play with colloquialism. Solness, a man unnerved by his jammy good fortune, asks, "What if one day instead of falling on my feet, I just fall?"

To 8 January (020 7359 4404)

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