The Master Builder, Almeida Theatre, Islington, London, November 2010

As the audience took their seats, one man sat alone on an almost bare stage. This was Halvard Solness, Master Builder, who worries about falling from the heights of his own success. Solness is the principal architect of his own building company, which he runs with a driving force and ruthless determination, while using and abusing others. One of these is the old man Knut Brovik, whose company he took over, another is Knut’s son Ragnar whose talents as an architect he refuses to recognise, and then there’s Knut’s fiancée Kaja who works for him, and adores him. At first we think there is some sexual liaison between Solness and Kaja — certainly his wife suspects it — but he happily accepts that guilt as a substitute for a far deeper guilt. Mrs. Solness is a sad and lonely woman who once lost her family home in a fire, later lost her baby sons, and now does her “duty” with little joy or enthusiasm.

Gemma Arterton with Stephen Dillane, photos by Simon Annand

Solness has helped crush the dreams of several people, but this narcissistic man suddenly meets his match in Hilde Wangel, a young woman who hikes in from the wild, declaring he knew her once, kissed her and promised her a kingdom. She was brilliantly played by Gemma Arterton, portraying her as very attractive, assertive and a bit of a minx. She charms everyone, and is the one character in this performance who is quite obviously crazy. But isn’t Solness crazy too? He was played by Stephen Dillane as a down to earth man who knows his limitations, yet is too easily enamoured of Hilde. I would have preferred a more nuanced portrayal of his character: greater imperiousness at the start, followed by a gradual descent into confusion as he succumbs to Hilde’s insane dreams. How else is one to explain his extraordinary decision at the end to do something that everyone knows is impossible for him?

John Light as Ragnar

Among the rest of the cast, Jack Shepherd was very good as the sympathetic doctor, Patrick Godfrey was convincing and entirely reasonable as Knut, the fatally ill father, and John Light was superb as Ragnar his son, coming into his own towards the end when he’s ready to defy Solness. Emma Hamilton gave a fine portrayal of Kaja, and Anastasia Hille showed Mrs. Solness to be a sad, dutiful wife, suddenly at sixes and sevens when guests arrive while she wants to run to her husband to stop him climbing the scaffolding. But when she talked to Hilde about losing her precious dolls in the fire, saying “they were alive in my heart”, there was little of the powerfully repressed emotion that I expected. The spark needed to bring Solness and his wife to life seemed lacking, so the performance revolved very much around Gemma Arterton, who brought a magnetic personality to the role of Hilde, exhibiting the charm and life that this deranged young woman brings to the Solness household.

The translation of Ibsen by Kenneth McLeish felt entirely natural, and this production by Travis Preston, with minimalist designs by Vicki Mortimer, packed everything into an hour and three-quarters with no interval. With excellent lighting by Paul Pyant, this should have been a more intense experience than it was, but I attended a preview and perhaps things will warm up later in the run.

This production continues until 8 January 2011 — for details click here.

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