The Master Builder, Chichester, Minerva Theatre, September 2010

“No, I can’t take it anymore” says Knut Brovik, an old architect who now works for Halvard Solness, the Master Builder. Brovik’s son Ragnar, and Ragnar’s finacée Kaia Fosli also work for Solness, and the world revolves around this highly successful, but very insecure man. He holds Ragnar down by refusing to approve his excellent drawings, and holds Ms. Fosli close to him, so we think we see the picture clearly — a man who appears to reject his dutiful wife, while keeping Ragnar down so he can enjoy the young man’s fiancée. Yet like many things in Ibsen it’s not that simple, and when a wild young woman, Hilda Wangel strides into the house all is lost.

Solness’s narcissism has finally found the perfect mirror, and his previous worries about being delusional are suddenly personified in this delusional young woman who claims he once kissed her and promised her a kingdom. Did she really meet him ten years ago and see this acrophobic man climb to the steeple on one of his own churches? He apparently believes it, so taken is he with her games, but she is the catalyst for his downfall, made reality by climbing the tower of one of his own creations. In the meantime she shows generosity to Ragnar by forcing Solness to validate his drawings, but it’s all too late for Ragnar’s father, who couldn’t take life any more.

Michael Pennington as Halvard Solness, photo by Manuel Harlan

Michael Pennington slowly brings out hidden complexities in the character of Solness, helping us understand his assertion that, “there are so many demons in the world”. His was a magnificent performance — a portrayal of great depth — and his wife was beautifully played by Maureen Beattie, allowing us to see her pain at the fire that once destroyed all her possessions. Those dolls — each one alive for her — all perished, and though she says the loss of her twin sons was God’s will, the nurseries are still kept ready for use, beds made up. Pip Donaghy was a sympathetic Dr. Herdal, and Solness’s ‘team’ — his secretary Kaja Fosli, the young architect Ragnar Borvik, and his father Knut — were all well played by Emily Wachter, Philip Cumbus, and John McEnery, as mere appendages to the great narcissist. Naomi Frederick played Hilda Wangel as an intense, slightly whacky yet surprisingly controlled young woman, though I would have preferred less volume at times.

Philip Franks’ direction gave us a drama that moved forward with energy, and this new version of Ibsen’s play by David Edgar — based on a literal translation by an expert — gave a text that flowed well and fitted the time of the drama. Costumes were all late nineteenth century, and the simple stage designs by Stephen Brimson Lewis, flipping interior to exterior, were excellent. The music by Matthew Scott gave a sense of mysterious forces at work, and the whole effect was well worth the trip from London.

Performances continue until October 9 — for details click here.

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