Henrik Ibsen’s The Master Builder, published in 1892, begins with the arrival of a young woman, Hilde Wangel, in Halvard Solness’s office. She claims to know the eponymous architect, although he doesn’t remember her. She reminds him that, ten years earlier, he built a tower on an old church at Lysanger (where she lives) and reveals that she was thrilled when he climbed the tower and placed a wreath on the top – a custom in Norway at that time. Solness remembers this, and a “little devil” in a white dress waving a white flag. “That little devil – that was I,” says Hilde. “But it was after that the real thing happened.”
Now we have (the fall of) The Master Builder after Henrik Ibsen at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. In this remarkable reworking, the fundamental action remains the same but the motives are transformed. In the original, the supporting characters are involved in several subplots which demonstrate Solness’s ruthlessness and egotism. The playwright Zinnie Harris has kept these plots, but they too are changed in the end.
Set in the present in Solness’s office, a bright clean space with a roof (Is this the new fashion? I saw a similar design in People Places and Things last week) designed by Alex Lowde, the production works well for the first two acts.
Directed by James Brining, Reece Dinsdale portrays Solness as a thoroughly believable narcissist with psychopathic tendencies. Solness’s wife Aline, normally cast as a desiccated old stick, is played by a decidedly un-desiccated Susan Cookson with sympathy and patience (unlike the neurotic original), and in a final scene with Hilde (also not in the original) she gives us the key to the production.
Katherine Rose Morley as Hilde (you might know her as Ellie in Last Tango in Halifax) is the perfect foil to Dinsdale’s ageing psycho. In an excellent performance, she vibrates with energy, is an equally skilled manipulator of people, and shares his determination to get to the top. And she flirts for England…sorry, Norway. In the original tale, he is far more infatuated with Hilde than in this version. Perhaps it’s because of the secret she holds?
The other actors are equally good. However, while the first two acts are well written, directed and acted, the third act of this play is problematic, as it always is. This is partly because the commentary on the offstage denouement can seem bathetic if not paced exactly right, and partly because designers often feel they must reflect the offstage action in something symbolic on-stage. In a recent production at The Old Vic, the set at the back collapsed, intentionally, leaving the cast spluttering and invisible in a huge cloud of dust at the curtain call. Here, the designer has created a clever effect so we both see the action, which is normally offstage, and symbolically experience Solness’s collapsing world. But I would have preferred not to see either and let my imagination do the work.
Instead of placing the final act in the garden, Harris and Brining have turned the rest of the show into a radio play. While the action takes place behind them, the actors speak into microphones at the front of the stage, saying both their own character lines and reading from briefs obviously handed to them. It might be a press conference or a court room, examining the full extent of Solness’s abuse, or indeed a Greek chorus. It rammed the point home rather too unsubtly.
The final scene, which takes place in a garden ‘years later’ (and is entirely Harris’s invention) asks an important question. In answering it, we are returned to a version of the epistemological uncertainty of the original. All in all, a satisfactory conclusion.
(the fall of) The Master Builder after Henrik Ibsen is on at Leeds’ West Yorkshire Playhouse until October 21, 2017. For more information or to book tickets, click here.