(The fall of ) The Master Builder
West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
30th Sept–21st October
Script: Stagecraft: Performance:
(The Fall of) The Master Builder, a new modernised take on the play by Ibsen is a brave if flawed attempt to bring into the light a subject more often left in the darkness. Ibsen was famed for his tackling of taboo subjects and the psychological intensity of his plays was controversial (and even sometimes banned) in his day but how would a modern adaptation of his work fare? Would it seem a hackneyed vision from a more conservative age? Or would the coruscating insight of his story still feel strikingly relevant even now?
The play opens on the dregs of a party celebrating architect, Halvard Solnes upcoming acceptance of the ‘Master Builder’ award. The set brilliantly creates a doll’s house style box for the actors to perform in albeit one which looks more like a 1970’s office than a Victorian drawing room. There is also great use of music from the beginning which is used sparingly and with deft subtly creating a sense of foggy memories and burgeoning violence.
As the play begins the audience is thrown straight into the action halfway through a conversation – a technique which though intended to create a sense of immediacy merely feels confusing. We see assistant, Knut Brovik and his trainee architect son, Ragnar bickering about their boss before the master builder himself appears. Halvard enters swaying and staggering, a jaunty and charismatic drunk trying to instil some much needed sense of camaraderie amongst his colleagues. But his mood of triumphalism is soured by an undercurrent of tension. For at the very moment of his greatest triumph Halvard is beginning to feel his sense of privilege slipping away; the women don’t want him any more, he’s making more mistakes and he’s running out of new ideas. Thrown into this heady cocktail of middle aged doubt is cocky student, Hilde with her unhealthy obsession with him, scheming and ambitious trainee, Ragnar and his neglected wife, Aline. Is it possible that Halvard will clasp defeat from the jaws of victory or will he find some way beyond these entanglements?
The play is something of a character study in which the central character, Halvard is gradually revealed to us as his mask of gregarious charm and cheek slips into something far more desperate and troubled. It’s a play about power, control and the personal cost of desire. It’s a tall order for any actor to create such a character and resist the compulsion to showboat but Reece Dinsdale as Halvard gives an excellent charismatic performance creating a compelling portrayal of a ruthless charmer which subtly flashes with hints of the inner anguish and despair of a man who recognises the wickedness of his behaviour (“I’m a terrible human being in some ways but I try…”) but though fleetingly filled with remorse lacks the will to actually stop doing it.
Though Halvard is very much the centre of the play the other actors bring nuanced performances from what at times could end up as bit part characterisations. Susan Cookson as Aline gives her character a winning mix of strength and vulnerability. Katherine Rose Morley manages to create some depth from a character which could have been a mere archetype. David Hounslow as Dr Herval captures the righteous hypocrisy of his incorrigible reprobate of a character very well just as Emma Naomi manages to create empathy for her spirited portrayal of the feisty, loving Kaja. But sadly the other actors fair less well as Michael Peavoy gives a charmless one note performance of belligerent ambition as Ragnar and Robert Pickavance wrings no pathos from his flat performance as Knut.
One aspect which is handled well by all the actors is their investment in the physicality of their performances as they lend all the characters a slightly different physical presence from the stiffness of Knut, and the sprightly Halvard to the elegant Kaja. The way the perspective is changed from that of Halvard to the other minor characters towards the end of the play has a powerful immediacy to it through the use of first person monologues which feels like a brave yet successful risk. This chorus of conflicting voices and perspectives forces the audience to see things afresh and challenges our attitudes to all the characters.
The creeping claustrophobia of the final act is conveyed wonderfully through the stagecraft as the very environment seems to crowd in upon Halvard and we see emanations of what is to come with flashes of harsh and angry white light. However the build up towards Halverd’s retribution at times feels slightly overwrought and ends in monster movie theatrics which do much to jeopardise the subtlety of some of the actors previous work. The actual ending if stopped a scene earlier would have felt marvellously brutal – like a slap in the face but instead we unfortunately have a final scene which though visually striking in its starkness patronises the audience somewhat by spelling out the ‘message’ of what we have just witnessed.
This queasy mix between the understated and the lurid is a real fault of the script as although the dialogue is at times witty and there is often a naturalism to it which flows very well some of the plot twists and turns lack finesse and give the play at times an uneven tone as it shifts from farce to melodrama to tragedy. Sometimes this is handled well and the shift is subtle yet at others it feels jarring. There are also unfortunately some aspects to the adaptation of Ibsen’s original work which feel misjudged. There are countless references to “churches” and “trolls” which have real symbolic force but which are clearly derived from Ibsen’s original play and are very much of the 19th century Norway of its origins. Combined with references to modern shopping centers and Prince Charles this leave the play’s sense of time and place muddled. I feel it would have been better to have either given up any attempt to set the play in modern times or lose these references entirely for the play to be more effective. Overall I enjoyed the play and although at times its message felt a little heavy-handed the talents of the cast brought a sense of reality to what in other hands could have been a rather contrived piece.
Reviewer : Ian Pepper