Theatre Review: Master Builder

Posted on: 06 December 2010 by Rhian Mainwaring

The past comes back to haunt the present in Henrik Ibsen’s poetic 1892 play The Master Builder, revived in a sparse, modern-dress production directed by Travis Preston at the Almeida Theatre in Islington.

Master Builder Gemma ArtertonHalvard Solness is a successful builder in a small Norwegian town. But he is consumed by guilt that his success came after a fire that devastated his wife and claimed the lives of their babies. His life in fact is now in ruins and he lives in fear that the next generation will rise up and cast him aside – his young colleague plans to set up a rival firm with his fiancée whom Solness himself hankers after.

When Hilde Wangel, a bewitching young woman, arrives to collect a decade-old debt, she breathes new life into his professional pride.  As Halvard completes his architectural masterpiece, will Hilde be the master builder’s ultimate downfall?

This work was written when Ibsen was 64 and was partly inspired by his infatuation with a Viennese girl he met on holiday. Exploring the uncertainty of human motivations, it is psychologically perceptive and replete with myth, symbolism and problematic metaphor.

However what should have been a dark, disturbing and powerful plays fails to catch fire and seems cold and curiously distant. The bare stage, save for a curved metal staircase at the far end, broodingly lit by Paul Pyant, is designed to concentrate our attention on Solness and the individuals in his life. But director Travis Preston fails to probe the complexity, depth and irony of Ibsen’s writing.

Stephen Dillane gives a mannered, strangely subdued, though at time fearsomely loud, performance as the self-made master builder of the title, while Gemma Arterton is persuasive as the fey and fierce, effusive and assertive antagonistic flirt, Hilde Wangel, who turns up unexpectedly out of his past. In supporting roles of Jack Shepherd, John Light and Anastasia Hille make their presence felt but are not given enough to do to make a lasting impression.

This in short is a production which stirs the imagination but not our hearts.

Plays until January 8 2011

Box office: 0207 359 4404

By Laurence Green

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