THE MASTER BUILDER
Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London SW1
Opened 13 October, 1995

Peter Hall and Inga-Stina Ewbank, in a programme note upon their translation of Ibsen's play, remind us of the often oblique, allusive character of its language, noting that "For much of the time the dialogue represents only the tip of an iceberg of unspoken thought". It is, then, all the more strange and frustrating that as director Hall insists so often on broad, unsubtle portrayals from his actors.

Alan Bates delivers many of Master Builder Solness's lines like a man whose heart is literally about to give out: rushing breathlessly through phrases, pausing in odd places and firing out the occasional single word like a pellet of buckshot. It takes some time to tune into this style before one can appreciate the advantages it also brings, chiefly the freedom to deliver with a defensive bluffness remarks which hurtle unheralded into full-blooded poetic symbolism. Bates's Solness is so unused to speaking truthfully of his own feelings and fears that, although he welcomes the sudden arrival of Hilde Wangel as providing someone he can talk to freely, his ingrained habits of speech continue even as he attempts to confront the "trollish" side of his nature.

After her remarkable performance in James Saunders's Retreat at the Orange Tree earlier this year, Victoria Hamilton begins to corner the market in confident young women who walk unannounced into the homes of men of a certain age and overturn their entire perspectives. Her Hilde is assured but not arrogant, seducing Solness with her enthusiasms more than she belabours him with her ten-year obsession; in her mildly raggle-taggle clothing, she brings with her the odour of the world beyond the master builder's stifling home and business life, like a road movie incarnate.

Left to her own devices, Hamilton would be a wonderful Hilde. But she has been pushed too far: her vocal inflexions are exaggerated and, in common with the rest of the cast, she is prey to bouts of unnecessary gesturing. Peter Hall's professed care to catch the differing registers of the translation has puzzlingly evaporated in his direction, which demands too much too often and creates an air of artifice verging on most un-Ibsenesque melodrama.

Gemma Jones as Aline Solness comes closest to reconciling the conflicting demands of play and production. Her pathological propriety, which at first only slips when she gives a nicely judged, barely perceptible sing-song turn to the darts of reproof she aims at her husband, finds itself by the third act in full battle with the despair she has bottled up for years. In the most telling single moment of the evening, she reaches a hand out to stroke the face of the basking Hilde then suppresses the gesture; the move itself speaks of Mrs. Solness's inner turmoil, while its ostentation testifies to Hall's over-direction.

It is disconcerting to see a director at once demonstrate a thorough, detailed understanding of a play and yet not trust it to do its own work without a succession of pointers to the audience. This conflict Hall's own troll is unfortunately quite as visible as those which plague Master Builder Solness.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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