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The Master Builder review at the Old Vic Theatre, London – ‘a play of layers’

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

The Master Builder trades in the mythic. Written in 1892, Ibsen’s play is a psychologically complex piece of writing, heavy with symbolism.

Halvard Solness is a hugely successful architect – he’s a master builder, an erector of very high spires – but he’s worried the trajectory of his career may be slowing and that younger, more talented people may soon be snapping at his heels.

When the play begins he’s in something of a funk, but then the blue of his world is brightened by the arrival of Hilde Wangel, youthful, bare-kneed and high-spirited. She claims to have met Solness ten years ago and been the recipient of a promise, that he would one day come back for her and that together they would construct castles in the sky.

The play is riddled with references to trolls and princesses, and the relationship between Solness and Hilde is also fantastical – she is a symbol of all the things he has lost, or believes he is losing, and there are repeated assertions that he might be mad – while at the same time it’s a rather unsettling and faintly icky account of a middle-aged man stirred up by the presence of an attractive young woman who first came to his attention when she was a girl.

Matthew Warchus’ production is alert to this duality. Initially it feels a bit stiff and chilly, a little lost on the Old Vic stage. But then Sarah Snook’s Hilde bounds in and the whole thing warms up. Ibsen silts the story with further layers of tragedy and loss. The house Solness shares with his wife bears the wounds of empty rooms, nurseries in which no child sleeps.

The central act is the most emotionally engaging by a long way. The production loses momentum a little in its last third. But Ralph Fiennes is brilliantly contradictory as Solness, charismatic and commanding but also prickly and craven. Snook is possibly even better. Hers is a stage-owning performance, her character both a strange angel and a disruptive force, while also, at the same time, plausible as a person.

Oddly, for a play that uses spires as none-too-subtle symbols, the design – by Warchus’ frequent collaborator Rob Howell is not as impressive as it might be. The elaborate set goes through three distinct phases, the changes necessitating two intervals, and yet for all the effort it doesn’t really wow. It’s at its most impressive in the opening scene, where it has a striking expressionistic quality, 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.

In the end though, it’s the performances that make this production fly – that and the compelling nature of the play itself, as adapted by David Hare: a play of layers, a play with horns and claws.

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Psychologically complex and symbolically rich Ibsen adaptation buoyed by two strong central performances