THEATRE / Safe as houses: The Master Builder; Bondagers - Edinburgh

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The Independent Culture
The Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh bills Ibsen's The Master Builder as 'Sigmund Freud's favourite play'. Anyone suspicious of Freud's psychology and ignorant of his theatrical taste (and who isn't) might well think they would be mad to go and see this production. They would, in fact, be mad to miss it.

Brian Cox (whose last stage role was an acclaimed Lear) co-directs and stars as Halvard Solness, the master builder suffering terrible vertigo at the peak of his career. In Cox's hands, Solness is a red-blooded barrel of energy, his libido constantly urging him on to the balls of his feet as he oppresses everyone around him.

Cox and his co-director John Crowley charge the play with an exuberant confidence, liberating laughter from unexpected corners. The key to this is the uninhibited candour of the performances. Solness's wife Aline (Morag Hood) appears to share her husband's delight in his philandering, just as his assistant Kaja (Fiona Bell) does not hold back in admitting her dependence upon it.

By the time the young and beautiful Hilde Wangel (Siri Neal) bursts into Solness's life with her outrageous demands on his affections, we have been completely won over by the production's momentum.

The dialogue (notwithstanding Michael Meyer's pellucid translation) remains peppered with echt-Freudian imagery of towers, steeples, fires and trolls, but this now seems to fit the heightened emotional states of Solness and Hilde, both of whom are in thrall to an impossible dream born of spiritual frustration.

Ibsen tests the limits of dramatic form in expressing this idea, setting any cast a mountainous task. Cox's production emerges triumphantly at the summit.

Round the corner at the Traverse, Sue Glover's Bondagers can be seen again only two years after its first appearance. Hilary Maclean is the only newcomer to the original, and highly talented, cast of six women.

Director Ian Brown extends the acting area deep into the normal seating space to recreate the Borders farmland of the 1860s, on which the women play out a year of their lives together. Theirs is a feudal society at a Hardyesque turning-point, in which women play a key but oppressed role. Land-owners lease land to farmers, who hire male workers ('hinds') who, in turn, hire women 'bondagers'.

The women's oppression is integral to the play, but Glover also celebrates their culture, values and aspirations. Eschewing conventional narrative structure, she produces a seamless mix of action, song, movement and dance.

Bondagers is much more than dramatised social anthropology. It's a subtle and powerful myth about human connectedness; with the earth, with each other and with ourselves. Glover's bondagers may have been haunted by their own future but they also haunt us, unforgettably.

'The Master Builder', Royal Lyceum Theatre (031-229 9697) to 11 Dec. 'Bondagers', Traverse Theatre (031-228 1404) to 19 Dec

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