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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

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.

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