The Master Builder

Theatre, Drama
3 out of 5 stars
4 out of 5 stars
(3user reviews)
 (© Manuel Harlan)
© Manuel HarlanSarah Snook (Hilde Wangel) and Ralph Fiennes (Halvard Solness)
 (© Manuel Harlan)
© Manuel HarlanRalph Fiennes (Halvard Solness) and Sarah Snook (Hilde Wangel)
 (© Manuel Harlan)
© Manuel HarlanLinda Emond (Aline Solness) and Ralph Fiennes (Halvard Solness)
 (© Manuel Harlan)
© Manuel HarlanLinda Emond (Aline Solness) and Sarah Snook (Hilde Wangel)
 (© Manuel Harlan)
© Manuel HarlanRalph Fiennes (Halvard Solness) and James Dreyfus (Dr. Herdal)
 (© Manuel Harlan)
© Manuel HarlanSarah Snook (Hilde Wangel) and cast
 (© Manuel Harlan)
© Manuel HarlanSarah Snook (Hilde Wangel)

Ralph Fiennes gives a titanic performance in this bizarre late Ibsen.

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.

Average User Rating

3.7 / 5

Rating Breakdown

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It was such a treat to see Fiennes as The Master Builder and what a confident, triumphant performance he gave!!
Sarah Snook was incredible too. The pair are a match made in heaven for theatre as her immature but headstrong stance completely contradicted (and complimented at the same time) his character. 

Having not read the play, I was left with A LOT of potential ideas as to what certain things meant and whether what I perceived to be the case was or wasn't. Power struggle, youth, denial and nostalgia are the themes I most picked up on and the whole performance made for great conversation in the pub after! 

Whilst in the third act, it got a tad tiring and repetitive at times, the finish was worth waiting for. I can still hear Snook now shouting "Master Builder!!!"


The Master Builder is not the most riveting play Ibsen wrote and sadly this comes across despite Hare's tinkering. Act 1 is engrossing and has wonderful, playful buoyant energy to it. I feel acts 2 and 3 could both have been condensed and edited together to avoid the need for a second interval, particularly as neither act truly propels the plot or furthers the development of the characters. The set was good. Simplistic but stylish and well constructed, it helped give the play a boost of energy at it's dwindling end.

Fiennes is magnetic as the Master Builder but I felt the rest of the cast were a bit hit and miss. It seemed as if they had either submitted to Fiennes' acting might or risen to the fight and played too big, leaving the text a little harder to digest. It had promise but it's mundane underpinnings can't save it.