Tag Archives: David Hare

The Master Builder – Radio 4

The Master Builder - Radio 4

Once Britain’s premier political playwright, David Hare’s more recent plays have received considerably mixed reviews, largely for issues around characterisation which particularly affected his 2018 drama I’m Not Running about the rise a female Independent turned Labour leader, while his covid-experience play Beat the Devil, which reopened the Bridge Theatre after the first lockdown, couldn’t find an easy balance between dramatic content and the political statements, statistics and occasional polemic which cut through and disjointed the narrative. But Hare has had notably more success when adapting the work of classic playwrights, often in translation, and while the least said about the abysmal Peter Gynt the better, his versions of Chekhov and Georges Simenon have been very well received, understanding and illuminating the texts for modern audiences.

Now, Hare returns to Ibsen for Radio 4 with a two-part version of The Master Builder, a complex and very timely adaptation that looks at sexual misconduct, ego and professional reputation in which the fallibility of memory runs up against very human attempts to shape their own legacy. The fallacy of that belief is at the heart of Ibsen’s complex plays, clearly demonstrating that history will always throw up its own surprises and that the self-destructive pursuit of legacy as an end in itself to the exclusion of family, community and decency is a fool’s errand.

The themes of toxic male pride and self-delusion are ever resonant and plenty of examples from our own era present themselves with great names on buildings erased and statues pulled down when the full context of an individual life leads to a reassessment of those honours (aligning with changing societal values), while the record books are filled with politicians and businessmen making fatefully bad decisions by worrying more about their place in history than the needs of the day.

In 2016, the Old Vic was the last major theatre to mount a production of The Master Builder staring Ralph Fiennes as Halvard Solness which Hare also adapted, tilting the story a little more sympathetically towards the title character without detracting from the inevitable path he treads through the story or devaluing the experience of Hilde who claims an intimacy with him formed when she was only 13-years-old. Ibsen leaves a great deal of flexibility for a director and performers in deciding how thoughtless, deluded, deliberately malicious or downright criminal Solness should be, and while infrequently performed, it is a character that offers considerable scope for an actor.

Hare’s adaption opts for a murky mixture of the latter traits, suggesting the Master Builder is deliberately concealing his own self-awareness and rather than acting from panic or carelessness, there is a manipulative, almost dangerous quality in the man who pursues an inappropriate proximity to the women he meets and, feeling his professional surety under threat, is all too easily tempted to betray a junior colleague. While a period setting can sometimes offset or at least more widely contextualise some of the play’s troubling themes, Hare’s radio version has no discernible references to era, leaving the audience to assume the setting of a piece that by necessity focuses on exposing character and behaviour.

Starting with the relationship between Solness and Hilde, Radio 4’s description notes the relevance of Hare’s adaptation in the #MeToo era. Arguably, Ibsen was there a hundred years before us and no reading of this play can fully sidestep the essential ambiguities that the original writer has woven into his tale about the nature of a private (although unconsummated) relationship between a grown man and a 13-year-old girl. Kisses of whatever kind are certainly and admittedly exchanged, and whether these are presented as the romanticism of a teenager or a far more disturbing predatory act by the man in question, Ibsen doesn’t allow either character to fully escape censure.

Innocent, misconstrued or truly repellent, Solness is shown to have been wrong in being alone with a young, impressionable girl and encouraging her clear partiality for him – a destructive force revisited on him throughout the narrative. And this fully accords with Ibsen’s presentation of male and female characters in other works including A Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler where freedom becomes a battle of power and manipulation.

Act One of the play, and Part One of this adaptation, focus almost exclusively on Solness’s relationship with women and in the hushed intimacy of radio there is an discomforting quality to the drama as the protagonist gloats from the attentions of servant Kaja before actively demanding her loyalty to him over her fiance, aspiring architect Ragnar who comes to Solness to ask for help. The rapid change in tone when Solness’s wife Aline is present carefully delineates the ways in which he interacts with these women and the informality he uses with his servant. The low whispers and urgency of the conversation with Kaja as he jealously requires her devotion and the colder tone taken with his wife are at odds, and Hare follows Ibsen in creating a solid context and pattern of behaviour which the greater crisis with Hilde solidifies.

How disingenuous Solness is being throughout the earlier interactions is entirely ambiguous in Ibsen’s text but Hare’s version plumps for very little uncertainty, implying the breathy and excited exchanges with Hilde that a long-forgotten encounter now rouses in the older man and creates an uncomfortable sense of his misused power over her. Starting from the premise ‘believe women’, Hare’s play becomes a different, more certain entity, and while that takes away from Ibsen’s deliberate character study and the play’s purposeful openness to interpretation, taking a firmer line in Act One and the determination that Solness behaved immorally feeds through Act Two / Part Two with interesting consequences.

We see that Solness is driven primarily by his desire for power over others, demonstrated through his interactions with women, collaborators and family. That these behaviours anticipate an impending destruction embodied in the character of Hilde is entirely appropriate, but Act Two expands our impression of Solness’s misdemeanours and, crucially, his psychology – the big fish in a small pond self-importance that has others fawning over his talent and attractions without risking the setting-down or dilution of his power in a larger city or context.

With the scene set, Hare’s adaptation in Part Two is driven by revenge for the female lives primarily as well as the community that Solness has stained. Hilde’s role is pivotal to this, slowly urging confession after confession from him as the Master Builder cleanses his soul to her, covering the death of his own children, the neglect and pressure of his wife, as well as the deliberate holding back of Ragnar’s talent in order to protect his own pre-eminent status. Hare and director Gary Brown immerse us in these discussions, expanding the suddenness of this intimacy from Part One as Solness speaks in hastened, forceful tones as he undergoes a psychological reckoning with his own life.

Hilde’s calm and poise is not that of an infatuated fan seeking a decade-long dream but of what feels like an elaborately structured manipulation, knowing when to press Solness to admit or question his own attitudes and when to wordlessly pull back and allow his slow apparently voluntary confessions to take shape. At times she emits exuberant, girlish exclamations in support of his decisions to build her fanciful castles and, crucially, to climb the tower both of which encourage him along what feels like a pre-determined path. The occasional notes of frustration she displays at Solness’s refusal to endorse Ragnar, sly references to his feelings for Kaja or the reverse psychology that imply he is too weak to make the climb and meet God’s retribution all suggest a young woman far more in control of the conversation and this man’s destiny than she would have others believe.

With large parts of this adaptation given over to the central duologue taking place predominantly in a single room in the Solness household, relatively few sound effects or supporting audio is needed to create a sense of place for the listener, relying instead on the claustrophobia of Ibsen’s text to create context. Yet here and there, the scribble of pen against paper, the sounds of doors opening and, in the dramatic finale, the crowds gathered around the fateful climb do more than enough to imply the switch from private to very public drama as the play concludes.

Laura Aikman’s Hilde is an assured young woman able to breeze into the Solness home and become its guiding force, and in just a day, even subduing Aline. Aikman offers just the right balance of enthusiasm and innocence that lure the Master Builder on, flattering to deceive while retaining plenty of Ibsen’s vital ambiguity within the character that make others defer to her. The central steel and occasional tinges of bitterness in Aikman’s Hilde are very interesting and her chemistry with David Schofield’s Solness is entirely compelling.

Schofield plays Solness like a deluded man, angry and fearful of the younger generation seeking to displace him but too easily flattered by the attentions of a young women whose unexpected arrival raises too few questions in his mind. His monstrous ego and frequent indignation with others is mixed with a disconcertingly reptilian tone with women who profess an interest in him, the eagerness and intensity of Schofield’s delivery denying Solness any sympathy or benefit of the doubt when his past finally catches up with him.

Siobhan Redmond as the weakened, almost broken Aline displays little interest in her husband until the final moments of the play, suggesting a wife forced to subdue her own needs, as Solness admits, to serve his. Joseph Ayre’s Ragnar is a small but valuable role, suggesting the wider toxicity of the Master Builder and Ayre well suggests how painfully that relationship between assistant and employer has broken down.

Radio 4’s version of The Master Builder adapted by David Hare based on Torkil Heggstad’s translation takes a firmer line on the central character and the consequences of his poisonous behaviour, adding a fresh and topical perspective without overtly disrupting or rerouting Ibsen’s purpose. With many theatres now reopened and public performances resuming, it’s easy to forget that new radio plays are also back in production and have much to contribute to our continued reassessment of classic works.

The Master Builder is available from BBC Sounds for 30 days. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Beat the Devil – Bridge Theatre


Beat the Devil - Bridge Theatre (by Manuel Harlan)

The Bridge Theatre is the first West End venue to offer socially-distanced indoor performances, welcoming audiences back to their still beautiful space with a series of what are essentially one-man shows between now and late October before deciding whether to resume their pre-advertised autumn season with Marianne Elliott’s take on They Shoot Horses Don’t They currently scheduled for November. The first short play opens this week with David Hare staking first claim to what will surely be a new genre or at least a familiar theme in the coming months – the Covid monologue. As an established white, middle class, male playwright Hare is in a better position that most to get his plays staged and for some this new work will epitomise tension between the politics of the theatre and the separate quality of the play.

Considering Beat the Devil is the story of a writer who contracts Covid-19, the safety measures in place at the Bridge Theatre are stringent and reassuring. Audience members are not only issued with digital tickets (which can be printed), but to control the flow of people through the foyer and auditorium each ticket will specify a recommended arrival time to allow audiences to reach their seats while passing as few people as possible. There is a socially distanced queue into the venue as well as a thermal camera checking everyone’s temperature, a one way system, hand sanitiser and ushers reminding attendees to keep their face covering in place throughout.

The auditorium itself has always benefited from plenty of individually fixed rather than long banks of seating so the Bridge Theatre team have extracted any chairs not in use to ensure that seats are socially distanced in blocks of two or three with a few singles if you are fast enough to find them. So unlike the older West End theatres such as the Palladium where Andrew Lloyd Webber had to block-off seats using antimacassars printed with an X, the physical flexibility of the Bridge removes any possibility that audiences members can change places during the performance. Just as with Regent’s Park, you really couldn’t feel safer.

David Hare is a renowned political playwright although his most recent work has not attracted the unerring critical praise of his most celebrated plays. The hugely disappointing I’m Not Running at the National Theatre in 2018 suffered from hollow characterisation in a not entirely credible Labour leadership contest scenario while his detective series Collaterol had some interesting narratives but wasn’t quite able to pull its various strands together. Yet prior to these Hare scored notable successes with high quality adaptations of George Simenon’s The Red Barn (2016) and the 2015 Young Chekhov trilogy at Chichester and the National. But Beat the Devil is for many reasons his most personal play in years, exploring his own experience of the disease while charting the political course of the pandemic.

Creating fictionalised versions of themselves is something writers often do, from Proust’s protagonist in In Search of Lost Time recalling scenes from the author’s younger days to the active entry of Laura Wade into the middle of The Watsons as the frustrated writer trying to get the characters inherited from Jane Austen to behave, there are many biographical elements to be sought in the output of novelists and playwrights. And while this is often left to the academics of English Literature and Theatre Studies to debate, Hare removes ambiguity and guesswork by making Beat the Devil a systematic account of his experience of catching, suffering with and recovering from a disease that has affected millions of people around the world.

Structurally, this 50-minute show is a sequence of diary entries read aloud with touches of the retrospective dramatist’s omnipotence. So as the character of David discusses his symptoms or the government response to the pandemic, Hare allows some forethought to come in, his protagonist is both reliving and recounting the months of lockdown from a point of current safety, with the knowledge of his own survival and of later social or political events rather than an unfolding account. Hare indulges this side of his writing, creating a story in which the audience, the lead and the writer know the outcome and uses that sense of confederacy between us to insert facts about the disease and its effects that he could not have know at the time of his illness, as well the consequences of governmental decision-making in the ensuing months.

The result is a piece that relies on the audience’s knowledge of our very recent history, peppered with references to particular moments in which the nature of the pandemic and its management shifted, often for the worse, and the personalities who have been its public face. In one sense, Beat the Devil feels like an act of historical record where the physical effects of a worldwide epidemic were met, in Hare’s view, with gross political incompetence and, worse, inhumanity by our leaders. None of this is especially insightful or surprising to anyone living in the UK in recent months but Hare has captured it in a way that prevents that vagaries of time from eroding the day-by-day experience. Whether Beat the Devil has any future as a play is another matter – it is so topically rooted in the exact sequence of events, the people and the dramas of Spring/Summer 2020 it is hard to know whether anyone would care to revive or revisit the play in the years or decades to come when this government and Covid-19 itself is a distant memory.

Whatever your expectations, Hare does a convincing job of representing himself onstage and the play has an intimate warmth that quickly creates a strong bond with the audience. Its very best moments recount the progressive experience of illness, the little anecdotes and unexpected developments that have made this such a difficult disease to control, and as Hare speaks with candour about the false lightness of the first week, the fuzzy lungs, nights sweats and delirium followed by uncontrollable vomiting, worries about mortality, physical frailty and sudden return to consciousness you can have nothing but empathy for anyone who seems to have experienced its full impact or close to it.

What is surprising is just how comic Hare’s voice is in retelling these experiences and wry humour is not one of the most pronounced traits in his earlier work. But in Beat the Devil Hare allows much more of his own personality to emerge and, it turns out, he is pretty sarcastic, taking pots shots not just at the every-growing list of government failings and its inexplicably weak personnel, but also at himself as he recalls the quirks of personality and amusing examples of contradictory behaviour. Refusing to go to hospital at the height of his sickness is because, he quips, wards are full of people with Covid, while eventually emerging from the disease his over-emphatic delight in the taste of water and frustration with the behaviour of men in action movies leave him shouting at the television. Running through the show from beginning to end is a lightly sardonic humour as the character of David finds incredulity at every turn, perhaps this is another long-term effect of the disease, Covid makes you funny.

Hare hasn’t entirely dispensed with his old habits though and one of Beat the Devil’s more frustrating elements is the clunky insertion of facts which crop up repeatedly. It is a frequent problem for the one-man show (and some multi-person political pieces), and whether the performer is re-enacting the life of Judy Garland, highlighting the effects of homelessness or discussing Covid, it is very difficult to make the recitation of facts feel like natural speech. Partly this is because conversation just doesn’t happen like this either in your own head or with an interlocutor, and, given the structural premise here, statistical facts are not something personal diary keepers tend to record.

These are, of course, Hare’s soapbox moments, an irresistible opportunity to reiterate government incompetence, death rates, the disproportionate effects of the illness on ethnic minorities and the failure to sufficiently support the NHS, all of which occasional feel like he’s trying too hard. And facts in an ongoing situation can be slippery, quickly making a play feel dated (and therefore not worthy of revival) if science discovers that the make-up of the disease is not what we think it is, or that its impacts on particular groups were not as disproportionate as first thought. But here, they make the play feel heavy-handed and while Hare is clearly impassioned and not necessarily wrong-headed, these moments feel more like acerbic stand-up than theatre, places where Hare the writer and David the character are detrimentally indistinct.

Since up-ending his serious romantic lead image with In Bruges in 2008, Ralph Fiennes has been able to reveal his comic side with roles in God of Carnage (2008) as well as Man and Superman (2015) alongside more serious projects. Here, his timing is wonderful, guiding the flow of Hare’s words to their humorous crescendo, making the jokes feel freshly minted and unrehearsed while subtly adding gestures or facial expressions that boost the comic power of the moment. These are used sparing so they don’t detract from or unbalance Hare’s more serious points, but Fiennes strikes an excellent balance between light and shade within the production.

His performance is one of the big draws of Beat the Devil, imbuing his character with plenty of charisma and a winning charm. Fiennes is an actor with the rare ability to hold a big room in the palm of his hands and make it seem effortless. Anyone who saw his Antony in 2018 alongside Sophie Okonedo’s Cleopatra will wonder at the Olivier Theatre’s formidable reputation as Fiennes stood alone on its vast stage to deliver Antony’s suicide speech in captivating style. The Bridge Theatre is equally sizeable and speaking to the threadbare audience permitted by the regulations, his debut appearance on this stage is a hugely successful one.

Much of the warmth and humanity in this piece comes from Fiennes’s performance and this ability to create connection with the room, reaching out across the vast space and socially distanced community to create a collective experience. It is a big ask for an actor to be alone on stage for almost an hour, a hugely exposing experience and one that many long-established actors will not be used to, but he finds the subtleties within the piece, the periods of flow and directional movement, using the chapter-markers to regroup as Hare shifts the time frame.  Most importantly, Fiennes keeps the audience there in the story with him as it segues between political rants, building the comic chain of events and fusing the elements of the show together as a single consistent character experience.

You won’t necessarily leave Beat the Devil thinking it was the finest play you have ever seen or even that Hare deserves this vast platform to tell his own story – the cultural tides are shifting so fast at the moment that any number of voices could arguably have used these resources to make the theatre landscape more equitable. But neither is Hare’s play an unmitigated travesty and there is much to take away from the show. Political theatre is there to hold the Establishment to account and Hare uses his personal journey to consider the management of the pandemic. The diagnosis for Hare and for the UK may have been spookily aligned, but while the writer has recovered, the country may not.

Beat the Devil is at The Bridge Theatre until 31st October with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

This House and the Parliamentary Play

Parliamentary Plays - This House, Labour of Love, Hansard, I'm Not Running

When it was first performed in 2012 James Graham’s This House was an affectionate satire, using its 1970s setting to examine the still young Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government formed in 2010. The shoring-up of minority governments opens all kinds of dramatic possibilities as the ruling parties use every trick in the book to ensure their legislative agenda survives while the Opposition, with the scent of blood in their nostrils, knows their hour is soon to come. Setting This House in 1974-1979, Graham situated his very contemporary play in the last UK coalition when the dying embers of the Labour government offered ample comedic examples of beleaguered MPs, frustrated Whips and savage backbiting to dramatise. It was, however, clearly a play that is optimistic about the Parliamentary process suggesting, for all its faults, it is among the strongest and most respected democratic systems in the world.

Eight years on, it is hard to think so as a weak Conservative government struggled to manage Brexit negotiations and the House as its own members turned against the Prime Minister. The last election may have delivered a stronger mandate but the democratic process has been actively besieged in the last 12 months as Parliament and judiciary fought to prevent the PM from proroguing his own Parliament and ignite his own form of Personal Rule (that worked out so well for Charles I!), while the muddles and deceptions of lockdown have only emphasised the untold influence of shady advisors – the modern day equivalent of evil counselors – who seek to bypass due process in the increasingly hollow-sounding name of “the people”.

Undoubtedly still a wonderful play, this National Theatre at Home streaming of This House arrives at a peculiar moment in our history, one that has altered the context around the play and its general political optimism. Recent years have shown us that truth is most certainly stranger than fiction, and that perhaps all hope of eventual rebalance may be gone. So where does this leave the Parliamentary play? In the last ten years, aside from Laura Wade’s Posh about the making of the men who’ve led us during that time and satirical Fringe pieces about Brexit or big personalities like Boris Johnson, there have been only four significant plays about the nature of government, political parties and the operational democratic process – This House and Labour of Love both by Graham, David Hare’s I’m Not Running and Simon Woods’s Hansard.

The success of these plays has been variable and with three-quarters of them produced by the National Theatre, there has been a collective nod to the failure of our two party system to adequately reflect the views and needs of the nation. Parliament, it seems from these plays, is ruled by personality, faction and self-interested powerplay intended to disguise the weakness of leadership or pave the way for a fresher-looking successor. By contrast, the kind of politics the nation cares about is issue driven – investment in education or the NHS, declining technological output and the more divisive issues of immigration and European unity. These stories tell us that the gap between those who lead and the electorate feels wider than ever while providing little hope, as things stand, of coming together.

The Failure to Govern

Nowhere has this been more clearly elucidated than in 2019’s Hansard, a fascinating two-hander between a Conservative government minister and his frustrated left-leaning wife whose Albee-esque marriage seems to reflect the division at the heart of British politics and its failure to serve the nation. The 90-minute conversation between Robin (Alex Jennings) and Diana (Lindsay Duncan) swirls continually around the fundamental purpose of government; whether to create a structure in which people can and should help themselves or to develop a more interventionist programme that insists on social support for the most vulnerable. Set in 1988 at the time of the Section 28 vote, Hansard ably dramatises the gap between government and governing in which the need to stay in power by obeying the party line overrides and is often the key reason to exercise power – an instance we see repeatedly in This House as Labour’s weakened Whips office focuses entirely on “the business of deals” to maintain their regime.

Labour of Love says much the same as Graham unpicks the central versus local party struggle across a number of years in a single constituency. Parachuting-in rising star David Lyons (Martin Freeman) to cut his teeth in a safe Labour seat becomes the conduit for excavating the  particular divisions within the Labour Party since Tony Blair’s sweeping election victory in 1997 and the increasing struggle to contain the traditional, leftist Trade Union elements of the grassroots party and reconcile it with the centrist – and ultimately more electable – promotional politics of the Blair era. But what this play really does is to expose the increasing distance between the metropolitan and arguably globally-focused centre of politics in London and the needs of constituency members across the country – a division made painfully obvious in the 2016 Brexit vote and ongoing fallout.

As with Hansard, there is an irreconcilable problem in which high-level government policy becomes so removed from the realities of society to be almost meaningless to the vast majority of people, while communities cry out for specific local services under threat from high-level policy. One thing that made Lynn Nottage’s Sweat so resonant was exactly that understanding of the huge distance between national political agendas and their consequences for everyday lives.

David Hare’s 2019 play I’m Not Running received mixed reviews as a dramatic exercise, but it also focused on the Labour Party over a number of years, considering the rise and subsequent failure of leadership in scenes of deal-making and double-crossing redolent of This House.  The introduction of a central romantic relationship between Sian Brooke’s Pauline Gibson and Alex Hassell’s Jack Gould takes some of the same pathways as Hansard in using a personal connection to examine a political divide. Hare’s play splits along two lines, looking at the selection of the party leader and the internal rivalries that so often detract from the business of governing, as well as the overall failure within the Labour Party in particular to reconcile its ideological and procedural arms as its management rolls between issue-based and career politicians.

The Cult of Legacy

Power is intoxicating and given a taste of it, few administrations will easily relinquish their position. One key driver of this is the obsession with legacy, of leaving behind a series of society-changing measures or leading the country through a period of crisis. Sadly for the governed, Prime Ministers who set out to assure their place in history rarely do for the right reasons, and often make the worst leaders. We see some discussion of this in Hansard as MP Robin uses the political record as his primary guide to decision-making, concerned how his voting record will look to history as well as how it could damage his chances of advancement within the party.

This House worries about this too as the ailing Labour government limps on, the Whips in this case determined to pass legislation that will keep their administration afloat for the full term. Rather than setting course for a positive place in history based on its reforming programme, its only goal becomes not going down in history as a government ousted by a vote of no confidence. Staying in power and preventing the opposing Conservative team from leading the House becomes the primary motivation, hoping that history will turn a blind eye to the shoddy tactics and increasingly desperate scrabbling for votes that characterised this Parliamentary session.

Even in Labour of Love, David must choose between blandly supporting the central party and its personable leader at all costs, or giving-up any thought of his own progress and promotion in order to make a stand for his community. With a focus on the debate between electability and principle that divide the Labour Party, the question of political and individual legacy is examined through this play’s time-travelling structure. Told in reverse chronological order from 2017 to 1990 and then back again, Graham’s drama looks at the consequences of legacy decisions over time, with MP David pre-determining his own contribution to political life by mapping out a rise through the ranks that will take him from safe seat to Minister, knowing all the while – like the characters of This House – that his rosy future depends on toeing the line and keeping his party in power at all costs. The consequences David learns are felt in local politics where the needs of the constituency are sacrificed to the futile attempts to second guess what history will make of the party’s time in power.

This House in 2020

Eight years on the sands have certainly shifted which casts This House in something of a different light. It remains a brilliantly constructed, whip smart and hilarious theatrical experience, one of the great plays of the last 10 years that pulls you into its story, never shying away from the complexity of the political situation and its consequences for democracy, yet still creating empathy and understanding for people on all sides however wittily portrayed. But, it reminds us of something we seem to have lost, where once our elected officials appeared to work within the established system, inventively stretching it to the limits but still respecting the boundaries, very recent political manoeuvering has seemed intent on bypassing the system entirely. Whatever side of the political divide you sit on – left or right, Conservative or Labour, Brexit or Remain or somewhere in between – an enduring faith in our democratic system and most importantly the institution of Parliament has been fundamentally wounded by the events of the last four years. Watching This House again thus became an almost nostalgic experience, one that makes us mourn slightly for a time when everyone respected the rules and agreed to play by them.

Graham’s work has always been so good at taking the temperature of our times, examining the centres of power within society and asking big questions about how and why our structures operate as they do, as well as the consequences for the individuals they effect whether the focus is the nature of justice and trial by media in Quiz or the wave of populist energy that quickly spun out of control created by the liberation of the newspaper industry in Ink. This House is essentially an optimistic play, about the ability of Parliament to right itself eventually. Any fundamental and permanent damage to our democracy inflicted by the last four years remains to be seen, but if a rumoured follow-up to This House is in the works, we can be sure Graham will be there to make sense of it for us.

This House is freely available on the National Theatre at Home channel until 4 June. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

The Master Builder – Old Vic


Ralph Fiennes is truly a master builder… of character, and the West End has seen two highly accomplished performances in under a year and with the announcement last week that he’ll take the lead in Antony and Cleopatra at the National in 2018 stage work is taking priority. Following on from his superb lead in Man and Superman, Fiennes has just began a 2 month run as Halvard Solness the title character in Ibsen’s The Master Builder. Now Ibsen is tough to get right despite being the second most performed playwright after Shakespeare.

Thankfully after many years elapse Ibsen plays have been given a new lease of life. Following on from the searing darkness of Ghosts at the Trafalgar Studios and the Old Vic’s own production of Hedda Gabler with Sheridan Smith in 2012, this production of The Master Builder has hit the West End at a fortuitous moment, when cluttered Victorian drawings room designs have been swept away and replaced with simpler, airy designs that focus attention on character. What the National did for Chekhov last summer (in the marvellous Three Days in the Country), the Old Vic has now done for Ibsen.

The Master Builder is the story of Halvard Solness, a man who has reached the peak of his profession in his local town. A self-trained architect who started on the building sites, he has risen to control all those around him. Solness is not a good man and early on in the play (so no spoiler) we learn that he and his wife lost their children when their former home burned to the ground, and while they have lived as virtual strangers for many years, that tragedy created the opportunity for his professional success. A consummate manipulator, particularly of women’s affections, Solness’s life is thrown into disarray when a young woman breezes in announcing that he’d kissed her when she was just 13 and promised her a kingdom, which she has now come to claim. Catalysed by her arrival, over the course of three acts, Solness debates the outcomes of his life, clinging to his fame while finally verbalising his guilt and fear, wondering if the personal happiness he has long denied himself has finally arrived.

Ralph Fiennes is surely on course to earn two Olivier nominations in one year (qualifying period is 25 February 2015 to 16 February 2016) which would be an extraordinary achievement given the challenging roles he has selected, and this performance as the Master Builder is one of his finest. Over the course of three acts he drip feeds us insights which begin to change your perspective, it’s not so much a progression as a skilled unravelling of a man riven with insecurities, but clinging to the perhaps meaningless attributes of pride and fame. At the end of Act One we’ve seen a man in complete control of his life, career and the people around him, and Fiennes brilliantly uses not just his tone of voice but also an imposing physicality to make it clear that Solness is king of all he surveys. This form of domineering masculinity is expressed in a firm Colossus-like stance, feet firmly apart and hands on hips, or sitting grandly back in his chair, completely relaxed and in control as he casually flicks away the adoration of his female book-keeper. Even when Hilde Wangel arrives with kissing claims, he dismisses her as a silly girl so by the first interval the man Fiennes has given us is clearly objectionable and manipulative.

David Hare’s adaptation is by no means overwritten but on several occasions Solness gives voice to his turmoil some moments after the audience has already understood that quite clearly from Fiennes’s high calibre performance. The finest actors don’t just act but are able to completely become their characters, and in the Second Act we seen Solness weaken as the effects of the last few years take their toll and he reveals the still tender scars of loss and guilt at having success built on tragedy. His body languages changes from the confidence of the first section to a more shrunken figure, shoulders drooping and pressed into his body, and in a particularly intense scene with his wife, he curls entirely into himself. Much of the introspection he saves for his conversations with Hilde so Fiennes cleverly resumes his more masculine stance when others enter the room, almost a habit he can’t shake off, but partly an unwillingness to concede the spoils he has won even though they don’t make him happy.

Throughout the production this notion of manly expectation is given greater meaning by the knowledge that he has no heir to inherit whatever he has achieved, the lack of children somehow being an affront to his masculinity which he compensates for by being overbearing. The implied casual dalliances with other women and fear of youth taking his prizes away from him are, in Fiennes’s interpretation, a driving force, battles to be won. What was also so fascinating was its contemporary resonance with celebrity culture and the obsessions of fandom which Fiennes, perhaps subconsciously, has drawn on. The idea that the fan feels they know the celebrity, and thereby projects fantasy traits and situations onto them comes across very strongly in this version of the Hilde-Solness relationship, making you wonder how many of the Harry Potter fans in the audience are doing the same with Fiennes in that moment, and what it must be like to have young, and not so young, women (and men) be so engaged with your life in that way.

The character of Hilde then is an interesting one and is designed to bring a sense of freshness to proceedings. To some extent her projections of Solness embolden her so it appears for the first time he is challenged and understood by someone. Sarah Snook’s performance never quite allows the audience to decide if Hilde has entirely invented the kiss, and was merely confused by the awakening of adult feelings in a young girl. It’s a crucial point in the play actually, determining whether Solness was genuinely despicable enough to take advantage of a young girl or whether it’s all in her head, and it’s a good thing to leave open to interpretation. Similarly, it’s never entirely clear whether Hilde genuinely wants Solness to fulfil her dreams or is bent on revenge, and in the final moments her almost sexual excitement could suggest either. Hilde could be a fantasist affected by the repression of sexual feeling, or herself a skilled manipulator plotting the demise of a figure who let her down. While Snook implies these things, sometimes her performance gets a bit jolly hockey-sticks as if trying too hard to appear different to the others, and sadly she is no match for Fiennes who is on considerable form here, so her half of the duologues feel less psychologically complete and it’s harder to see why he’s so won over by her.

There’s good support from Martin Hutson as Ragnar Brovik, the assistant architect frustrated by Solness constantly overlooking his talents and from Charlie Cameron as Ragnar’s fiancée Kaja Fosil with whom Solness mercilessly flirts and casts aside. Linda Emond too as Mrs Solness is very touching and, despite her short stage time, creates an impression of duty that supplants the grief and suffering she feels, which nicely matches the public persona her husband has created to supress his own grief, and there’s a brilliant scene between them in Act Two where they start to move towards one another only to be interrupted, hinting at the relationship they had once had.

There is something quite Shakespearean about this production, a tragedy in the dramatic sense as the protagonist’s fatal flaw leads to an inevitable outcome. David Hare’s careful adaptation highlights the ambiguity of the characters and their position, bringing in the elements of fantasy and philosophical reflection while repurposing the language for the modern ear. Matthew Warchus directs with purpose, giving his actors room to fully explore the various nuances of character while maintaining a handle on pace and tension. Rob Howell’s design is a sight to be seen, long gone is the tiresome clutter of past productions and instead he has created a stylish architects home that feels modern and slick but surrounded on 3 sides by the charred remnants of the past, which whatever they do, they can never escape.  I was beginning to despair of the Old Vic’s new season and had been underwhelmed with the offerings so far but this is a triumph – the perfect combination of great writing, meaningful design, good direction and superlative performance. But my word is this Fiennes’s play and Oliviers or not, it will certainly be talked about for years to come. Don’t miss it.

The Master Builder is at the Old Vic until 19 March. Tickets start at £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.

Skylight – Wyndhams Theatre

So Skylight is this summer’s big film-star vehicle for Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan, making her West End debut, as former lovers reunited for one evening in a grotty flat in north London while Kyra cooks spaghetti. At a glance you may think them an unlikely casting choice, even inappropriate given the 35 years between them, but give this a chance and you’ll find yourself fully believing in their relationship.

Kyra used to work for Tom in a restaurant he owned with his wife. She lived with them for six years whilst conducting an affair with him for which neither feels any remorse, and when his wife found out Kyra left without explanation. Since then the wife has died and Tom has finally tracked Kyra down to find out why she bolted and whether there’s a chance at reconciliation. But both of them have changed, and during the course of one evening at her flat they confront their shared past and whether they can breach the vast gulf now between them.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this duel between the characters is that this gulf exists almost entirely as a physical distance between the actors. This is an interesting decision by director Stephen Daldry showing two people who never get close to one another despite the intimacy of their conversation and their earlier relationship. They don’t just sit on opposite sides of the table but, for much of the play, on opposite sides of the room. Far from making it less plausible, it reinforces how different they now are and how much they would have to overcome to be reunited. This also adds far greater significance and poignancy to the few moments when they are physically close.

Bill Nighy is, of course, incredible as the suave and boisterous Tom, a role he has played in an earlier iteration. His performance is large and full of energy as he prowls the stage trying to figure out Kyra’s situation. He’s a man who’s done very well for himself in the restaurant business and become used to a style of living, which rankles with Kyra’s new found social conscience. Nighy’s layered performance is particularly adept at the rapid chances of mood and pace, flipping in a second from contempt for Kyra’s attitudes to painful remembrance of their shared history, and it is in these moments that you see his skill in conveying a man deeply affected by his life choices.

Carey Mulligan’s Kyra is a perfect contrast to the more exuberant Nighy, playing it small and contained, emphasising her control and determination, avoiding confrontation. It is easy to understand why she chose to run away from Tom and not deal with the consequences of their affair. But this adds the more power to the moment she really does lose control, first with anger at Tom’s patronising attitude, and then in a tender emotional surrender that closes the first act. By living in a level of discomfort Kyra is punishing herself for her earlier indiscretion and the guilt she feels towards Tom’s wife, but in Mulligan’s complex performance you see her not quite realising this and filling her time with social crusades instead.

The interplay between the two of them is really first rate, battling for control and the last word. Their stories are unfolded to the audience before being torn down; Kyra accusing him of romanticising the past while Tom retorts with attacks on her conscience. These are two people, once so close and with so much to say, now unable to reconcile the changed other before them. At times it’s hard to escape Hare’s polemic, and the views the characters express can seem more of a playwright’s rant than a natural conversation, but this doesn’t tarnish a fantastic revival.  Whether Tom and Kyra manage to return to the past and rekindle their relationship, I’ll leave you to find out, and you really should! Nigh and Mulligan’s gripping performances are well worth the visit, but book an Italian restaurant afterwards- you’ll want to eat spaghetti!

Skylight is at the Wyndham’s Theatre until 23 August 2014. If not sold out, tickets start at £22.25 but have been cheaper on Last Minute. Otherwise it will also be broadcast to cinemas on 17 July via NT Live.

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