Almeida Theatre, London N1
Opened 18 November, 2010
In all sorts of fields from religion to interior décor, there is a particular kind of sparseness that is paradoxically ostentatious in its asceticism. So also in acting, where one of its exponents is Stephen Dillane. A few months ago, he gave a Prospero at the Old Vic that was so concentrated it was often inaudible from half a dozen rows back. Here, as Ibsen’s master builder Solness, he is seldom so quiet; in fact, he booms several times, but seems to be singing his booms; even whilst the character is at his most abandoned, the actor is precisely pitching each syllable.
Every gesture likewise has a T’ai-chi deliberateness, and this approach communicates itself to Gemma Arterton as Hilde Wangel, seeking Solness out ten years after he unwittingly fired in her girlish fantasies that have since become pathological. Arterton’s is not a Hilde who works her spell partly through an inherent fascination, as was Naomi Frederick’s in the same play at Chichester a couple of months ago. No, this Hilde is apple-cheeked, dark-shining-eyed, impassioned and quite, quite mad. In Travis Preston’s production, Solness is not a potentially great man lured to a tragic end; rather, Dillane’s Solness has long been half-cracked and is encouraged the rest of the way by a young woman with similar form in a folie à deux. Anastasia Hille’s portrayal of his wife (the finest performance of the evening) may be racked with her own deep senses of guilt and duty, but she is a Buddha compared to these two.
Dillane’s style is at the heart of the production. Preston (who worked with the actor on his overrated solo Macbeth at this theatre in 2005) is on the same wavelength, and has conceived the production on a dimly lit stage bare save for an earth floor and a metal staircase spanning the entire height of the theatre’s back wall. At a few peak moments, when Solness recalls his confrontation with God on a church steeple all those years ago and again at the climax of the play, the wind seems to whistle around the bleak pinnacles of his soul, or like the singing of the elemental demons he believes attend him in his selfish desires. But of the rest of the play’s hinterland nothing is discernible. The programme contains a comically overstated essay on the symbolism of the play, none of which comes across in performance. This is a production in which less is less.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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