Minerva Studio, Chichester
Opened 15 September, 2010
I'll bet Ayn Rand loved The Master Builder. Its young, fiery, self-willed female antagonist Hilde Wangel suddenly reappears in master builder Solness’s life ten years after an incident in her childhood which he had all but forgotten; but she would have made an ideal partner instead for Howard Roark, Rand's own architect protagonist in her novel The Fountainhead. Strip away the bits of Ibsen's play about unseen demons, dark forces and defying the Almighty, and it's all about making one's life, both personal and professional, the purest possible embodiment of will in the teeth of conventions and scruples.
That is rather the point. As Rand would probably not have recognised, remove those elements and there is no drama: nothing to say and no worthwhile way of saying it. Ibsen is all about these tensions. Hedda Gabler, and to a certain extent even Nora Helmer in Ghosts, learn that individuality is exalted sometimes against our better natures, and that the price of our desires can be tragically high... "tragically" in the literal sense. The Master Builder is also such a tragedy in which, again literally, pride goes before a fall.
David Edgar's sinewy new version of the text is well served and well balanced in a characteristically thoughtful production by Philip Franks. Michael Pennington's Solness is an edgy, agitated figure in late middle age even before Hilde's arrival kindles in him mythic visions of past and future glories. As Hilde, Naomi Frederick is more vigorous even than when she was in male apparel as the disguised Rosalind in As You Like It at Shakespeare's Globe last year; but, as we soon realise, this is the vigour and the zeal of the stalker, someone who has nursed a childish dream on into wildly delusional maturity. When the glint in her eyes passes into Solness's... well, a glinting Pennington can be a chilling sight. Maureen Beattie has the power as an actor to go head to head with these two and even to burn them off the stage, but she rightly buttons everything up tight as Solness's wife; her knowledge and her fears are evident, but she refuses to be their creature, keeping herself out of the furnace of appetite in which Hilde lives and into which she entices Solness with fatal results.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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