The Master Builder, Halvard Solness, is universally acknowledged by his townsfolk as a lucky man: self-made and supremely successful in business, his good fortune is not due to skill or merit, but to a terrible accident many years ago, which also killed his twin sons and destroyed his marriage. However, it also gave him the ability to build and sell houses on the land where his wife’s treasured ancestral home once stood; local competition soon crumbled away, “making me the builder of homes, but at the price of never having a home of my own again.” Rob Howell’s design surrounds the stage with shattered timbers, creating a precarious, imaginary world in which Ibsen examines the exhilaration, and guilt, of getting just what you wish for. Solness is not a man who has survived life’s trials, but rather one who is permanently enslaved by them, haunted by shameful memories, yet clinging defiantly to the position he has gained, convinced increasingly that whatever he wills will irrevocably come to pass. Ibsen processes this existential paradox through references to the trolls and demons of Norwegian folktale, linking this late play to his earliest works and bringing a tinge of surrealism to this otherwise viciously real human drama. Ralph Fiennes gives us both Solness’ callous cruelty, ruthlessly and deliberately insensitive to the plight of others in securing his aims, and his extraordinary personal vulnerability: almost mad with unresolved grief, his fortune poisoned by the absence of children, the word “nursery” stabbing repeatedly through his lines as those little rooms lie, forever empty, upstairs.
Much has been made of Solness’ intense relationships with the young girls on stage, his secretary Kaja Fosli (a warm, intense Charlie Cameron) and the mysterious arrival Hilde Wangel (a passionately sustained and self-possessed Sarah Snook), which have ready parallels in Ibsen’s own life. For director Matthew Warchus, it is not the bonds but the gaps between old men and young women that come across most forcibly: the constant mismatching, the fundamental misunderstandings, the unsatisfactory self-deceptions which only ever provide temporary, delusional escape from reality. It is Solness’ broken marriage with his wife Aline (Linda Emond) which reveals the most: he calls her “a greater builder than I… A builder of souls,” yet pain has frozen their continuing love for each other, now always, tragically, expressed to others – never to themselves. Eventually, exhausted by “being chained to a corpse”, Solness hurls himself towards Hilde, who proves herself to be the tragic inheritor of his power to wish ideas into reality: Hilde’s ten-year girlhood obsession with Solness is destroyed as it is finally fulfilled in a powerful climax which shatters the stage, as well as characters’ lives.
From its subtle opening scenes to its bloodcurdling finale, David Hare’s faithful new adaptation of The Master Builder takes us well beyond mid-life crisis into full-blown existential crisis. Occasional falters in pacing early on cannot detract from the ultimate power of this piece, mainly thanks to the strong cast, with fine supporting performances from James Dreyfus as a serious, compassionate Dr Herdal and Martin Hutson as a tremblingly furious Ragnar Brovik.