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