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The Master Builder review round-up (Old Vic)

Ralph Fiennes in The Master Builder at the Old Vic. Photo: Tristram Kenton Ralph Fiennes in The Master Builder at the Old Vic. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Described by the Old Vic as a “mesmeric exploration of power, control, death and life”, Henrik Ibsen’s intricate and mythic play The Master Builder, written in 1892, has been adapted for the Old Vic by David Hare. Following press night on February 3, Troy Nankervis rounds up the best reviews of The Master Builder…

The Master Builder: the lowdown

Halvard Solness (Ralph Fiennes) is an ageing architect, a self-made master builder and the most successful man in town, yet he worries about the younger generation and fears he may soon be usurped. Solness’ friend and doctor (James Dreyfus) fears he might descending into madness.

Then Hilde Wangel (Sarah Snook) appears, claiming to have met Solness a decade previously, and reveals a promise he made to her as a 13-year-old.

Also starring in this production is Martin Hutson, James Laurenson, Charlie Cameron and Linda Edmond, with Owen Findlay, John McAndrew, Eleanor Montgomery, Peter Yapp and Eleanor Sutton.

Behind the scenes, director Matthew Warchus leads a creative team including design by Rob Howell, lighting by Hugh Vanstone, music by Gary Yershon and sound by Simon Baker.

The Master Builder plays at the Old Vic until March 19 2016.

The Master Builder: the good reviews

The Master Builder at the Old Vic Photo: Tristram Kenton
The Master Builder at the Old Vic Photo: Tristram Kenton

In his four-star review published in The Guardian, Michael Billington says the “compelling” production’s success “belongs to the author and actors”, as “searing” writing underpins a “magnetic central performance” by Ralph Fiennes.

Praising Hare for faithfully retaining Ibsen’s structure, Billington says the text is sharpened to draw out conflict, which explores “duty and desire, reason and imagination, and the invasion of the daily world, by demonic, troll-like forces”.

He says Fiennes “dominates” the stage, with his performance ever so slowly transforming Solness from “a carapace of casual cruelty” into “a tragic figure haunted by hubris”.

“What is astonishing is the transformation he [Fiennes] undergoes with Hilde’s [Sarah Snook’s] arrival. His body relaxes, his face is irradiated by smiles and his speech becomes rapid and eager.”

Equally impressed with Fiennes, critic Henry Hitchings says the actor delivers a “riveting” yet “measured” performance in his four-star review published in the London Evening Standard.

“Fiennes as Halvard Solness is a study in contradictions, dismissive one moment and teasingly conspiratorial the next,” he says.

Hitchings writes that director Matthew Warchus has anchored the production in “everyday” realism, while capturing a hint of the fantasy though Sarah Snook’s “magnetic” portrayal of Hilde, which “represents everything that’s been missing from Solness’s marriage to frail Aline (Linda Emond).”

“[Hilde’s] freshness and vitality come easily to Sarah Snook, a fast-rising talent who reminds of both Cate Blanchett and Emma Stone yet has a deep-voiced gravity that is very much her own.”

Quentin Letts is also a fan of Snook, praising her “addictive” performance, which lifts the “long passages of psychobabble dialogue” in his three-star review for the Daily Mail.

“Each second she seems to alter expression,” he writes.

“She has a deep voice, a statuesque physique and conveys a dangerous intensity as Hilde tells the master builder he is fated to be her love.”

Letts says the onstage chemistry between the 23-year-old Australian actress and Fiennes “flames like fired brandy”.

He’s also a fan of Hare’s take on the text, which manages to sidestep “the customary airlessness of 19th century Norway”. “[But] purists may find it too conversational and argue that stiffness is essential to the play’s truth,” he writes.

“This Matthew Warchus production, with its pace and sexiness, makes the cryptic nature of Ibsen’s human relationships half-bearable.”

In her five-star review published in The Telegraph, critic Jane Shilling calls The Master Builder a “beautifully controlled” and “intelligent production”.

“[It] is all shifting nuance and finely calibrated detail, from Gary Yershon’s subtle score to the faint drift of dry ice that intimates Hilde’s fatal otherworldliness,” she writes.

Shilling praises Rob Howell’s set, which moves from “dubious property development to madness… [to] middle-aged infatuation”.

“Howell’s extraordinary designs surround Solness’s drafting office and his home, with its three ominously empty nurseries, with a writhing tracery of blackened spars.”

While Natasha Tripney’s four-star review published in The Stage gives kudos to the “psychologically complex and symbolically rich Ibsen adaptation”, she disagrees with Shilling, suggesting the design it is not as spectacular as it could be.

Despite clear motifs in the form of “none-too-subtle” symbolic spires, Tripney wonders if designer Rob Howell may have slightly missed the mark. “[The set is] at its most impressive in the opening scene, where it has a striking expressionistic quality,” she writes.

“But it increasingly comes to resemble a collision between Cornelia Parker’s all too often referenced Cold Dark Matter and, oddly, James Cameron’s Titanic, all fractured, dipsomaniac decking and shards of wood suspended in mid-air.”

The Master Builder: the bad reviews

Ralph Fiennes in The Master Builder at the Old Vic. Photo: Tristam Kenton
Ralph Fiennes in The Master Builder at the Old Vic. Photo: Tristam Kenton

Andrzej Lukowski pokes fun at a script that feels both “peculiar” and “symbolism-saturated” in his three-star review for Time Out.

“Halvard Solness… is a master builder. We know this, because in David Hare’s adaptation, the phrase ‘master builder’ is uttered such a distracting number of times that I started to worry I was missing some deeper significance to the phrase, or that I should be doing a shot each time,” he says.

Despite a “splendid” performance from Fiennes, Lukowski says there is “little chemistry” with co-star Sarah Snook. And unlike other critics, Lukowski says the “fascinating, troubling portrait of grief is so stomped upon by the clodhopping Wangel”. “Her interventions and an excess of proto-Freudian symbolism certainly sully the delicate heart of the play.”

Lukowski also criticises its stop-start nature of the show – the culprit being the two intervals to accommodate the set changes. “Warchus’s decision to include two intervals – presumably to accommodate changes in Rob Howell’s stunning impressionistic set – further bogs the show down,” he writes.

In his three star review published by The Arts Desk, David Nice criticises Matthew Warchus for a “phoney” production that lacks spontaneity and fails to transfix a “restless, endlessly coughing audience”.

“It certainly doesn’t help that chilling events from the past or visions of the paranormal are underlined with creepy music and lighting when they should be torn from the characters’ insides, the sounds unheard by anybody but themselves,” he writes.

Like Tripney, Nice also finds Howell’s set design ineffective, but to a much greater extent, calling it “incoherent and complicated” while lacking a sense of resonance. “It’s sabotaged in any case by the soundtrack at its most ludicrous while a now echo-chambered Snook swings in ecstasy,” he writes.

“The temptation to do a Grand Design clearly got the better of Howell. His clutter is in marked contrast to the clean lines of Tim Hatley’s scenery for the Almeida Little Eyolf.”

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