The Old Vic, London (****)
Before seeing this latest revival of Ibsen’s remarkable examination of age, desire, and the sub-conscious, I worried that Ralph Fiennes’s Halvard Solness, the self-taught and `lucky’ master builder might dwarf the rest of the cast and the production. Would the Hilde Wangel be able to hold her own against him?
I needn’t have worried. In a stroke of imaginative casting, Matthew Warchus has brought in fresh blood from the `New World’ – the talented young Australian actress, Sarah Snook for Hilde and American, Linda Emond for Solness’s withdrawn and stricken wife, Aline.
Snook is a revelation. Radiating health, energy and a lethally seductive sense of well-being and intent, you can well understand her irresistibility to a man like Solness – as terrified of scaling heights as he is of the sound of youth baying at his heels. Snook with the luminosity of a young Anna Calder Marshall and Liv Ullman but altogether more implacable meets Fiennes, eyeball to eyeball and terrifyingly never backs down.
But, as David Hare’s nifty new translation insinuates, Hilde’s erotic/mystical/psychological persuasiveness is not only a manifestation of Solness’s deeper desires, called into being possibly (pace Little Eyolf in Richard Eyre’s excellent recent Almeida revival) by wish-fulfillment, but ten years ago, Solness took sexual advantage of Hilde, then a 13-year old.
In a play wreathed in guilt, Hilde’s appearance therefore is not so much revenge but her claim on him for the promises he made to her consequences of actions/abuse a decade ago.
A response, prompted maybe by our modern sensibility to these things, Warchus’ production honours many of Ibsen’s teeming other ideas about will-power (very Nietzschean), the stultification of a marriage deadened by duty and grief (again like Little Eyolf), and power built on fear.
Typically Fiennes is impressive and commanding if too often similar in gesture and posture to his John Tanner in last year’s NT Man and Superman. Rob Howells’s set – a mighty criss-cross of wooden beams and book-cases – too ultimately renders the play’s dynamic prosaic instead of metaphoric.
But you can’t keep a great play down. The Master Builder and Ibsen’s tortured autobiographical examination ultimately triumphs.