Ralph Fiennes and Sarah Snook in 'The Master Builder' at the Old Vic. Photo: Manuel Harlan © Manuel Harlan
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It’s the ugliness that is most intriguing in Ibsen’s strange, knotty and unwieldy late play The Master Builder. In his portrait of ageing, self-made architect Halvard Solness, Ibsen is bracingly honest about the narcissism of ambition: we learn that as a young man Solness pushed aside his older rival Brovik, and that now he is bringing the same ruthless calculation to preventing Brovik’s talented young son from doing the same to him. He has turned a cold shoulder to his wife, mired in grief since the death of their infant sons. Moreover, he is perfectly aware of how cruel this is.

Ralph Fiennes, in his excellent, nuanced performance at the heart of Matthew Warchus’s new staging, doesn’t shy away from this. Solness is a man in a giant fight with his own ego and creativity and Fiennes makes him prickly, contradictory, mean, guilt-riddled and deeply unhappy. When we first meet him he is barking inconsistent commands at his hapless assistants, toying with the female book-keeper and rebuffing his wife (a beautifully observed performance from Linda Emond). But he meets his match when a young woman marches through the door and demands that he build her the kingdom that he promised her as a child. His response to her will both release him and condemn him, as he fatally and hubristically climbs a spire to defy his own mortality.

David Hare’s spring-heeled, often colloquial new translation and Warchus’s detailed, astute direction wring both the humour and distress out of Solness’s behaviour, while foregrounding the play’s psychological acuity and the way its difficult mix of realism, myth and sexual symbolism presses towards expressionism.

Sarah Snook’s magnetic Hilde Wangel is certainly physically alluring to Fiennes’s Solness, but Snook also brings an unnerving directness and almost unhinged zeal to her. She seems more force of nature than real woman and you are never quite sure on what level she exists for Solness. In a play much preoccupied with the possibility of willing things into being, she seems in part a projection of his frustrated creative streak.

Even so, this play is a hard spire to climb. The symbolism is pretty heavy-handed and indigestible and there is something too diagrammatic about the exploration of the themes, so that you watch rather than feel the existential crisis at its heart. This powerful production doesn’t quite overcome these difficulties but it is carried through by a fine cast and Fiennes’s towering central performance.

To March 19, oldvictheatre.com

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