Just four shows in and Matthew Warchus's regime at the helm of the Old Vic is already demonstrating a healthy diversity and clarity of purpose to serve as wide a constituency as possible, from new writing (Future Conditional), rare rediscoveries (O'Neill's The Hairy Ape) and family shows (The Lorax) to a star-led classic now (Ibsen's The Master Builder), the last of which is more like the sort of thing his predecessor Kevin Spacey specialised in. (Still to come: a dance based piece Jekyll and Hyde, another more modern classic The Caretaker and a brand-new musical Groundhog Day).
But even The Master Builder is a risky proposition: maybe not as dense as Ibsen's Rosmersholm or John Gabriel Borkman, but still intense going, mixing a realistic, psychologically acute portrait of a middle-aged man in personal and existential crisis with more mythical and metaphysical strains (there's lot of talk of trolls and God) that are sometimes harder to swallow.
It's a fantastic star role for Ralph Fiennes, who has been returning to the theatre with a vengeance and is not shy of a challenge: he last starred in Bernard Shaw's talkative Man and Superman at the National (and before that Oedipus), and has just been announced to be doing Antony and Cleopatra there next year. The bearded Fiennes has always had a brooding intensity; here he puts it to fine use for a man haunted by fear and guilt, both for his career as a celebrated architect with younger men (including his assistant, beautifully played by Martin Hutson) snapping at his heels and for his arid marriage, haunted by the death of the young twins he and his wife had.
He undergoes a transformation when a young woman, whom he made a promise to ten years earlier when she was just 13, comes back into his life and demands he recreates the triumphal moment of a topping-out ceremony on one of his buildings that involves placing a wreath on the spire of the new house he has just completed.
There's some quite heavy sexual symbolism attached to all of this, and there's a definite chemistry between Fiennes and the young woman, played by the deep-voiced, strawberry blonde Australian actress Sarah Snook. There's also splendid support for Broadway actress Linda Emond as his long-suffering wife and James Dreyfus as a family friend.
Set changes between each of the three acts require two intervals, which turns it into a long evening. But it is a rewarding one if you stick with it.
"The joy of the evening lies in watching Fiennes at the height of his powers and relishing a play that offers one of the most searing self-portraits in drama."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Matthew Warchus’s beautifully controlled and intelligent production is all shifting nuance and finely calibrated detail, from Hugh Vanstone’s subtle score to the faint drift of dry ice that intimates Hilde’s fatal otherworldliness and the remarkable nuances of physicality with which the actors embody their roles ..."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"Fiennes delivers a terrifically compelling study of a man going out of his mind with fear and ineffectual remorse – irascibly impatient and relentlessly negative about younger talent; haunted by the thought that he somehow willed the disasters that have paradoxically made his career."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"Mr Fiennes throws himself in to the part. Even when Ibsen makes little sense – often – it is possible to admire the Fiennes stage technique."
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail
"... a production that edges towards the three-hour mark but speaks hauntingly about the dark heart of ambition and the madness of desire."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard