The Master Builder
Time Out says
Freud theorised the unconscious, Ibsen dramatised it. So it’s right that director Travis Preston makes the Norwegian’s loopiest and most personal drama look and feel like a dream. Naturalism soon wilts on the Almeida’s bare gravelled stage, where master architect Solness (Stephen Dillane) is served by his dutiful wife, his entranced secretary, her bitterly cowed fiancé, and his dying father. Into his grim paradise enters Hilde (the improbably luscious Gemma Arterton), whom Solness kissed when she was a schoolgirl: she has come to claim the ‘kingdom’ he allegedly promised her and tempt him to his fall.
Even the most stylish production can’t entirely overcome the sheer unplayable rapture of Ibsen’s 1892 play, which was written in the aftermath of his infatuation with a young girl. It plays out Hilde and Solness’s impossible relationship through a ludicrously phallic disagreement about towers (Solness builds them but is too scared to climb them; Hilde screams that they are ‘unbearably thrilling’; and there are times when the play seems like an old man’s folly). But Preston’s production, with its slow stylised dynamics and exaggerated unreality, allows the play’s strange truths to blossom amid the barren stones.
In one charged scene Hilde and Solness arch and crouch opposite each other, like cats ready to pounce on their own shadows. Each reveals an inner troll. Solness’s is the cruel ambition that spurred him to success after his baby twins died, and it shows in his increasingly haggard face. Hilde remains radiant, but her horny toes, ripped men’s clothes and matted hair suggest something eldritch and untameable.
It helps that Dillane does power like an Eskimo does snow: in every conceivable depth and variety. Even the words he rolls slowly around his mouth are prisoners whose captivity he relishes. His descent from empty-eyed sharp-suited New Labour-ish arriviste to a desperately exhilarated creature, destroyed by the nemesis that he created, is ‘unbearably thrilling’ – and not just for the sexy troll who urges him on his way.