It is a pleasure to see one of the finest actors of his generation, Ralph Fiennes, giving one of his greatest performances as the title character in Matthew Warchus's superb new production of Ibsen's 1892 classic The Master Builder (Old Vic), adapted for the stage by David Hare.
The master builder, Halvard Solness, has a fear of falling. A self-made man without professional qualifications, he has achieved domination in the town, but is increasingly frightened of being displaced by the young. One day, a young woman, Hilde Wangel, marches into his office, claiming to have known him ten years previously and telling him of a promise he made to her when she was 13.
This is a play about the conflict between duty, and desire, reason and imagination and the invasion of the daily world by demonic troll-like forces. At its most basic level it reflects Ibsen's own life, his troubled marriage and his infatuation with a young woman, Emily Bardach, whom he met in the Tyrol in 1889.
Matthew Warchus's beautifully controlled and intelligent production is all shifting nuance and finely calibrated detail. David Hare has stayed true to Ibsen's structure and sharpened the text without in any way subverting it, skilfully mixing realism and myth, and making the play seem alive and fresh as if the dialogue had been written by a modern playwright. Rob Howell's set, with its tilted disc and tangled branches, manages to evoke the torture in Solness's mind. There is also an imaginative use of sound, so that when the action refers to past disasters, we hear the echo of crying children and the blazing fire that threatened them.
But it is Ralph Fiennes who dominates the evening. In the early scenes, he presents us with a Solness who is brusque, harsh and with a capacity for casual cruelty; treating his employees – a broken rival builder, Khut Brovik and his son Ragnar, with bluff contempt, while lazily exercising his powers of sexual frustration on Raynar's fiancee, Laja. It is a measure of Fiennes's brilliance as an actor that his transformation is so believable. He is relaxed, his face lights up, his speech becomes rapid and eager and he is ready to revive his lost sense of artistic dating, thereby setting in motion the steps that lead to his ultimate downfall.
Rising young Australian actress Sarah Snook plays Hilde Wangel with the right combination of fervour, determination and tempestuousness. She represents everything that's been missing from Solness's marriage, bringing an injection of youth and a youthful creative force into his life. Linda Emond lends the duty driven Mrs Solness an immoveable secret sorrow, while Martin Hutson plays Solness's exploited assistant Ragnar, as a man seething with rancour and a hunger for revenge. Charlie Cameron as his tremulous fiancee Kaja and James Laurenson as his Father Knut also impress.
It may be early in the year but this enthralling production goes straight on my ten of the best for 2016.
The Master Builder
Plays at the Old Vic until Saturday 19 March 2016
Box office: 0844 871 7628Last modified: April 7, 2021