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Review: Ralph Fiennes is The Master Builder, Old Vic

Cw-9693-mediumIbsen's The Master Builder is rather an odd play and it's interesting that the premise it is marketed on isn't actually the bit I enjoyed so much.

The story is that Halvard Solness (Ralph Fiennes), a naturally talented but untrained architect, has become a great success but is worried that his days as the master builder may be coming to an end. He fears that younger, more talented architects will come along, like Ragnar (Martin Hutson) who works in his office. A young woman Hilde Wangel (Sarah Snook) arrives one day claiming to have met Halvard 10 years previously, when he made advances on her together with some outlandish promises (think trolls and castles in the sky).

But that is part of the play that I didn't like so much. I couldn't make out if Hilde was delusional or calculated and I'm not sure if she is meant to be either (maybe it is David Hare's adapatation?). I think the trailer interview with Ralph Fiennes talking about the play being a psychological thriller doesn't help. Reading up on the play afterwards Halvard has been described as a middle-aged man showing off in front of a young woman and that I get. But, in his work practices Halvard doesn't so much flirt with youth as block it, he manipulates his young book-keeper Kaja's (Charlie Cameron) feelings for him in order to keep her fiance Ragnar from striking out on his own.

Hilde brings with her a slightly fantastical element, perhaps she represents a younger, freer, bolder Halvard before life experience and tragedy shaped him? You can't really take her at face value because she is quite fanciful which is why I question whether she is delusional. But then Halvard's wife and his doctor friend fear he might have his own mental issues.

Where the play got interesting for me is in how Hilde draws out of Halvard his past and how it has shaped him. It is a sad story of a man psychologically scarred by tragedy and as a result he's haunted by guilt for his good fortune. Halvard isn't a very nice man. He is frustratingly obstinate and manipulative of others feelings, especially womens. He can also be cruel. Despite this Fiennes does manage to make you feel occasionally sympathetic. In fact Fiennes' performance is of a man frantically clinging on to what he knows, a world he has constructed to explain and protect himself. He leans on pieces of furniture as if it is something solid and tangible to hold onto. He is solid and stiff in his movement seemingly relaxing only occasionally in Hilde's company.

The Master Builder is a play of three acts (with two intervals) and it is the central act which is the most exposing, once a certain notion is put in Halvard's head the ending is inevitable, how it is staged is a nice theatrical device though. The play itself doesn't feel long but the intervals make it so and something that needs to be worked on during preview period. The running time is advertised at 2 hours 45 minutes but it was more than 3 hours last night - the start of the 3rd act was delayed presumably because they were having problems with the set behind the safety curtain. The set is stunning in an understated way but it feels like a failing of design that two full intervals are required in order to change it.

I'm not sure this is ever going to be my favourite Ibsen play but I certainly liked it enough to want to see another version for a different interpretation. It runs at the Old Vic Theatre until March 19, 2016 and it is getting four stars from me.