The Master Builder is a play about the spaces in between, a theme that Howell’s stunning set emphasises: it is full of slicing geometric shapes, slanted light and fragmented structures that hover between the mythical and material. The sets (Hare’s two-interval adaptation of the play allows for two major scene changes) are the undoubted highlight of the production, bringing a menacing edge to the figures they surround and encompass.
Ralph Fiennes, who plays the eponymous character of the piece, feels like a sturdy fit for the curmudgeonly, often callous, Halvard Solness, largely referred to as ‘the Master Builder’, a role he inhabits entirely. The characters’ own awareness of the roles they are playing signals a clear drift into the meta-theatrical, one that can feel laborious, especially with the addition of the heavy-handed ‘castles in the sky’ metaphor. Perhaps it is this, Ibsen’s highly stylised dialogue, which accounts for the moments of stiltedness in Fiennes’ performance: at times he appears too conscious of his own role as an actor, making Ibsen’s already self-conscious dialogue seem cumbersome. There is a stillness in Fienne’s performance that is moving, a restraint that in his strongest moments is utterly heartbreaking, but, physically, it feels as if he is going through the motions, the director’s choreography all too apparent in his movements.
Solness begins as a brooding, paranoid figure, trapped in a haunted marriage. He ends with a youthful, hubristic reach for the divine, and, in Fiennes’ hands, it is a transition that manages to feel entirely natural. The arrival of Hilde (Sarah Snook), a young, brash upstart, tugs Solness into the language of fairy tale and dreams, mixed up with his obsession with the lexicon of psycho-analysis. Snook is ebullient, often feeling like a character from children’s fiction, an intrusion into the darkness of Ibsen. However, it is this child-like petulance, her insistence on Solness embracing the lost moments of his earlier years, forcing them both into carelessly infantile joy that causes his downfall. Her wishes, always ridiculous, become dangerous – she remains possessive until the end, refusing to allow him to exist outside of his role as Master Builder.
The Master Builder focuses on the spaces in between articulation: everything is often so over-articulated that the audience is forced to reach into the silences that exist between characters for depth. The greatest griefs of all the characters are ones they have inferred from the coincidences and imaginative leaps they have projected onto the world around them. The heightened performances of both Fiennes and Snook make sense in this context, an almost-surrealism that is echoed and aided by the set. The duo, who revolve around each other in an increasingly frenzied manner, are ably supported by Linda Emond, who gives a performance of immense emotional strength. The strongest moments of the play come at its most unhinged, when the language becomes untethered and Snook is possessed by an exhortive passion, spiralling hysterically well past the play’s climactic moment.