“In every play by Ibsen,” wrote Somerset Maugham, “a stranger comes into the room, opens a window to let in fresh air and everyone dies of pneumonia.” That broadly fits The Master Builder, which we saw at the Old Vic last night in an engrossing production.
Ibsen’s plays are a mixture of shocking realism, symbolism, and fantasy, and he moves rapidly and easily from one to the other. The Master Builder, Halvard Solness, seems solid enough at the beginning, although all the passion has gone out of his marriage, he’s tired of his present young mistress, and fearful that the young will oust him, but at times he seems crazy. He’s convinced (or is he?) that both his wife and his doctor think him insane. He’s pleased that his wife is suspicious of his relationship with his young mistress he tells the doctor while also telling him that there’s no reason for her to be suspicious, when, of course, there is.
Solness thinks that he can make things happen just by saying or imagining them. Wasn’t it because he imagined his wife’s parents’ house burnt down that it did burn down? The young will come knocking at my door to replace me, he says to the doctor, and there is a knocking at the door. In burts Hilde Wangel, a young woman dressed in a bizarre outfit that might be described as a highly disordered Hitler Youth uniform.
She has come to claim her kingdom. Ten years ago to the day, when she was just 13, Solness came to her house, took hold of her, bent her back, kissed her, and told her she was a princess and that in 10 years’ time he would give her a kingdom. It was the day he built his last church, with a high spire, and—despite being terrified of heights–he climbed to the top of the spire. He hasn’t built a spire since (impotence), although he’s building one now—on his new house that will have three nurseries despite his wife being too old to have children.
Solness starts by claiming he remembers nothing about his kiss or promise, but then he does—or does he pretend to? Hilde is full of energy, and, although weird, alluring. She can make him young again, bring back his potency. But could they both be trolls, they ask each other. She certainly could. One critic I’ve read objected to the use of the word troll: I made him think of the Three Little Pigs. David Hare has adapted the play so that the language sounds modern (as Ibsen urged people to do), but he chose to leave the word troll. I thought that he was right, emphasising the weirdness and the fairy story element.
Ralph Fiennes plays Solness with complete conviction managing easily the realistic, the funny, the angry, and the fantastic, and the rapid moves among them. Sarah Snook’s performance as Hilde is much more controversial. She speaks loudly in a very actorly manner, which Lin and others found too strained and unconvincing. But for me it worked well, and I think that I’ll remember her performance after I’ve forgotten Fiennes’s. I loved particularly the physical element of her performance, climbing onto the table, resting her head on Solness’s wife’s lap, pushing Solness’s arms up into the air, and ending on a swing as Solness, inspired and pushed by her, climbs one again to the top of a spire—for disaster to take over. She was more troll than human, which felt right to me.
The young did come to destroy the Master Builder—but not in the way he expected.