Ralph Fiennes has got some nads: most stars of his level go out of their way to appear in what one might loosely call popular plays, but not Fiennesy. He follows last year’s Herculean unexpurgated staging of Bernard Shaw’s rambling ‘Man and Superman’ by taking on the title role of Henrik Ibsen’s deeply peculiar, symbolism-saturated late play ‘The Master Builder’.
And good for him: in both he wrestles staggering performances out of difficult material. What Leo does to a bison carcass in ‘The Revenant’, Ralph does to words in ‘The Master Builder’.
Halvard Solness (Fiennes) is a master builder. We know this, because in David Hare’s adaptation, the phrase ‘master builder’ is uttered such a distracting number of times that I started to worry I was missing some deeper significance to the phrase, or that I should be doing a shot each time.
Anyway, he refuses to take the title of ‘architect’ as his skills are self-taught and his success, he believes, springs from a terrible event that has blighted his life and that of his wife Aline (Linda Emond). He’s a strange sort of anti-hero: a ruthless businessman and deeply unsympathetic human being, but also desperately vulnerable and grief stricken. A more grandiloquent actor than Fiennes might have mangled the part into bombast, but he is absolutely splendid: hard and distant at first, agonisingly believable as his shell cracks to reveal a man burning up with guilt.
Into his world walks Aussie actor Sarah Snook as Hilde Wangel (it’s less funny said out loud), a gauche 23-year-old who spins a fantastic – and probably true – yarn about Solness snogging her a decade ago and promising he’d come back when she was grown up. In Hare’s take – directed colourfully by Old Vic boss Matthew Warchus – there’s little chemistry between the two; instead she fills the unfortunate role of Manic Pixie Dream Girl, popping into his life with a loud, posh voice and saying a series of unsayable things that force him to confront his grief head on, with unhappy results. I’m not sure it’s anyone’s fault but Ibsen’s that this fascinating, troubling portrait of grief is so stomped upon by the clodhopping Wangel, but her interventions and an excess of proto-Freudian symbolism certainly sully the delicate heart of the play.
Warchus’s decision to include two intervals – presumably to accommodate changes in Rob Howell’s stunning impressionistic set – further bogs the show down. The director’s reputation is as a populist, but his ‘Master Builder’ feels more like a mad curio, albeit one that’s a resolute triumph for star Fiennes.