The Master Builder review from 2003

  • Date:
    Tuesday, June 3, 2003
    Review by:
    Alan Bird

    Patrick Stewart, better known as Captain Picard of Star Trek: Next Generation to many of his fans, was once a stalwart of the RSC and had made a reputation for himself as a great classic actor. In his portrayal of Ibsen’s Master Builder Halvard Solness, he shows that this reputation was well deserved as he dominates the stage with his masterful performance.

    Ibsen’s plays are dark emotional dramas full of unfulfilled passion and unbearable grief. The programme notes tell us that in a letter to Helene Raff, (a young woman with whom Ibsen had a passionate platonic relationship) Ibsen wrote, “Our whole being is nothing but a fight against the dark forces within ourselves.”

    The dark forces within Halvard Solness revolve around his drive for success. He is a self-taught man who had to push hard to get ahead as a young man. Full of his own glory he built churches with the tallest towers, he saw himself as a giant amongst men, a man destined to rise above others through the power of his will. He refers to the troll within him that is able to call upon helpers and seekers to accomplish what he desires. The troll seems a fitting metaphor for his burning ambition that is willing to use others to get ahead. However, like a troll, his ambition may be strong but it also lacks intelligence, it flounders around causing grief for him and others.

    As Halvard ages he needs the vitality and energy of young people around him whilst at the same time fearing that same vitality. He grows with guilt over his success built upon his wife’s grief. He flatters his young clerk so that she believes he is in love with her as a way of keeping her fiancé in his employment.

    Into this walks Hilda, a young woman who had met the Master Builder ten years earlier, when she was a child, and had become infatuated with him. Hilda has come to claim her place in Halvard’s life, however the Master Builder is no longer the strong, dominant figure he once was. Induced by Hilda to claim his kingdom, to once again be the Master Builder, he climbs too high!

    Patrick Stewart brings a great intensity to his performance as well as finding dark dry humour within Ibsen’s play, he looks controlled and calculating until he is swept along by Hilda’s infatuation. Sue Johnston is also excellent as Aline Solness, the Master Builders wife. She appears cold and distant as she emphasis her duty, but hidden behind this emphasis is an immense grief which Johnston fiercely captures.

    However, the show never reaches any great heights and at times is silly. This is down to the miscasting of Lisa Dillon as Hilda Wangel, the young women who bursts into the Master Builder’s life. Her performance is too intense which makes her character appear infantile. At times the audience laughed at her character’s overbearing earnestness. There are no degrees to her intensity, which renders her eagerness laborious and exhausting to watch. This takes away from the essence of the drama, which is about the passion between Halvard and Hilda. It causes Halvard's relationship with her to appear more paternal then sensual.

    Anthony Page’s production, whilst well acted, is like the Master Builder himself, brought down by the miscasting of Hilda Wangel.


    Notices from the popular press....
    RHODA KOENIG for THE INDEPENDENT says the production is "Superb" and goes on to say that Patrick Stewart "is good in the severe, embittered passages and very good in the king-without-his-crown-on ones." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "A low-pressure affair." He goes on to say, "What I miss in Anthony Page's production is the erotic tension that should fire the encounters between Solness and Hilde." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Anthony Page directs a gripping, psychologically alert production." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says the play " excites and provokes more than it confuses". He goes on to say, "Imagine an ascetic simmering with suppressed intensity. That’s Stewart’s Solness: a character and performance to remember."NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Enthralling production."

    External links to full reviews from newspapers

    The Guardian
    The Times
    Daily Telegraph
    The Independent

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