The Master Builder – Review – West Yorkshire Playhouse
By Eve Luddington, September 2017
The Master Builder was first performed in 1892 when Henrik Ibsen was in his 60s. The playwright wanted his plays to be constantly updated but Zinnie Harris’s excellent creation is ‘more a response to, than a version of Ibsen’s play’, writes James Brining, the director, in his programme notes. It has Ibsen’s original shape and characters but is set firmly in the England of 2017.
Zinnie Harris’s play retains several major themes of the original – age’s fear of youth, and conscience’s fight with self-deception – but develops powerfully its own exploration of a sexual predator.
In an open plan office, an elderly and unwell man, Brovik, is clearing the detritus of a party, watched and criticised by his son, Ragmar. Ragmar’s fiancee arrives and helps to clear up. All three are employees of Solness: Ragmar resents that his father is clearing up the mess of the man he trained and who has taken over his company. Enter Solness, intoxicated with drink and pride. The party has been to celebrate his newly award status of ‘Master Builder’.
In two days’ time, Prince Charles is expected to open his latest building, a shopping centre with towers. Solness is at the height of his fame but his elation is shadowed. As he tells his best friend, Dr. Herdal, he fears that, from the top, the only way is down and he feels deeply threatened by the younger and ambitious Ragnar. The master builder’s professional confidence is only reputation-deep.
Solness and his wife, Aline, have a tense relationship in which Aline’s wounds go untreated. Aline is ‘dutifully’ supportive but deeply unhappy. The effects of a fire years ago shook Aline to her roots but contributed to Solness’s good fortune and reputation. He confesses to his best friend, Dr Herdal, that he had actually wished for something of the sort to progress his career. Solness now believes that he has only to wish for something, good or bad, to make it happen: it’s the ‘troll’ inside him. This is a self-deception which relieves him of responsibility for his actions – and yet he is tortured by his conscience.
Into this situation walks 25 year-old Hilde who met Solness 10 years ago. He doesn’t at first remember the meeting but she has obsessed about him since and is writing a college dissertation about him. Hilde has never forgotten the promise he made to whisk her away ‘in ten years time’ and build her a kingdom. She, like Solness, believes an inner ‘troll’ makes a reality of her desires: now, she is ready for Solness to fulfil his promise. What follows is the unravelling of an influential man and his reputation as his predatory activities are revealed; ultimately by the ambitious and resentful young Ragnar, who has learned more than his trade from his employer.
With Hilde’s arrival, the dominant theme of Zinnie Harris’s play is introduced. After recent revelations about sexual predation, it’s openly discussed but I think Harris sheds new light on the issue. While neither condoning Solness’s behaviour nor pitying the man, Harris has managed to offer an insight into the conflicted mind of a self-deceiving, manipulative bully and sexual predator, and doesn’t flinch from suggesting the charm and power that attracts his victims. The last Act, taking on a momentum of its own, gives voice to those damaged by such a man.
James Brining’s production is well paced and engrossing, although I attended the first public performance and, that evening, I felt the climactic penultimate scenes lost power by the stage-positioning of Solness: my companion and I were distracted out of concern for the actor’s safety. When these scenes concluded, the audience applause began. It was only when actors and scene-shifters started changing the set that we realised there was more to come. The final scene is important and offers a thread of hope but on this opening night, it was incredibly challenging for the actors to communicate it effectively. I’m sure there will be tweaked for future performances.
In terms of design, Alex Lowde’s off-white, open plan office made for a wide but shallow acting area. For me, there were dead spaces which took away from the drama but, towards the end, the symbolism as the back wall closed in on Solness and the office partially collapsed, was powerfully effective.
Solness is an extremely challenging role. Reece Dinsdale’s slightly hunched presence strongly conveyed the tortured soul in drink, with a hangover and in crisis but revealed less of the character’s charisma. Perhaps it was intended that his professional position and power were the main attractors for his victims.
Susan Cookson’s Aline is fully realised; an attractive, frustrated, self-blaming and deeply unhappy woman. Hilde is a difficult role; a ‘nice middle class’ young woman with an obsession which has controlled her thoughts and actions for 10 years, arrives to make her dream reality.
Katherine Rose Morley conveys the naïve passion of the character but perhaps misses some intensity. This is not to take away from an excellent performance by a talented actor whose performance is likely to grow.
Ragnar’s resentment and ambition were portrayed vigorously by Michael Peavoy. Less credible was his relationship with Kaja, played by Emma Naomi who, herself, showed us a conscientious, caring and honest woman disgusted with her employer.
Robert Pickavance’s Brovik was perhaps more agile than I would have expected but his conflicted loyalties came across effectively. A mention too for Dr Herdal, played by David Hounslow. As Solness’s best friend, his main function, I think, is to disseminate information. Hounslow breathed life into the role, a hale and hearty man whose energy turns to rage at his discoveries. A strong cast overall.
The sound, designed by Jon Nicholls, seemed tokenistic in the first Act. Perhaps it was introduced to set up a convention. Certainly, its presence added strong atmosphere later in the action.
Powerful, engaging and disturbing, this is an excellent production, on the whole well-served by the actors and creative team.
images: Manuel Harlan