The Master Builder, Old Vic, theatre review: Ralph Fiennes gives compelling study of a man going out of his mind

The Master Builder is a ferociously unflattering self-portrait of the artist as an ageing man

Paul Taylor
Thursday 04 February 2016 13:08
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Ralph Fiennes (Halvard Solness) and James Dreyfus (Dr. Herdal) in The Master Builder at The Old Vic
Ralph Fiennes (Halvard Solness) and James Dreyfus (Dr. Herdal) in The Master Builder at The Old Vic

Matthew Warchus's reign at the Old Vic got off, in my opinion, to an uncertain start in the autumn season. So it's a pleasure to report that, after programming the theatre's delightful Christmas show, The Lorax, he now directs the most artistically searching and successful production of his tenure thus far. His revival of Ibsen's The Master Builder gives Ralph Fiennes the opportunity to surpass himself in the central role and it elicits from David Hare an adaptation that, like his revelatory versions of the early plays of Chekhov, has an incisive clarity and wit in its keen, empathetic understanding of where the piece is coming from.

The Master Builder is a ferociously unflattering self-portrait of the artist as an ageing man. It weaves together the realistic, the mythical, and the symbolism of the subconscious mind as it journeys into the protagonist's mid-life crisis. Solness, the self-made eponymous architect, is racked with guilt for having destroyed the lives of others in his ascent to wealth and pre-eminence and he's terrified of being displaced by the rising generation. “The young are waiting. In all their power. Knocking on the door,” he predicts. Bang on cue, in strides the challenge of youth in the provocative, rucksack-toting shape of Hilde Wangel, in a hoisted skirt and exuding the health of the mountaineer. She's never recovered from the girlhood thrill of watching Solness climb up and garland one of his church towers. Now, ten years later, she has come to demand the kingdom that she claims he promised her and to egg him on to take that vertiginous risk a second time.

Sarah Snook (Hilde Wangel) and cast in The Master Builder at The Old Vic

Fiennes delivers a terrifically compelling study of a man going out of his mind with fear and ineffectual remorse – irascibly impatient and relentlessly negative about younger talent; haunted by the thought that he somehow willed the disasters that have paradoxically made his career, even as they killed his children and blighted his wife (Linda Emond); dreading and drawn to demonic forces over which has no control. Sarah Snook, the young Australian star, is a disarmingly direct, deep-voiced and uninhibited as Hilde in an assured, striking performance that would bring a breath of fresh, mountain air to the morbid Solness household, if this character weren't so ambiguous. Is she another emanation of the master builder's will? (Rob Howell's design – where the ceiling is a tilted disc and the surround a sparse stockade of suspended splinters that collapses when Solness falls to his death – suggests a partly subjective space.) Have they summoned each other?

Hilde is sufficiently separate to berate the protagonist for his professional meanness towards his talented younger colleage, Ragnor (Martin Hutson, eventually erupting in indignant anger). But Fiennes and Snook also arrestingly convey how the couple's mutual fascination is strangely like the wonder of wary self-discovery as though Hilde represents warring elements within Solness's soul. She feeds his ageing man's vanity as she emboldens him to make the fatal climb but she cannot eradicate his sense of guilt and so, in her, Number One Fan and nemesis are inextricably linked.

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