Ibsen could be the godfather of Nordic Noir. His plays are dark and constantly chip away at the façade of civil society. His plays are realistic and simple, analysing issues of morality and the uncomfortable complexities of the human condition.
The Master Builder is considered one of Ibsen’s most significant works, yet it is also one of his most abstract. The message behind the play is difficult to understand and there is a great deal of debate about how to interpret its true meaning.
This new adaptation by David Hare sees Ralph Fiennes take the lead role as Halvard Solness, a middle-aged Master Builder in a small town in Norway. Solness is a self made man, without formal training or education he has become a great architect and runs a successful business. Yet his success has coincided with exceptional good fortune and the misfortunes of his competitors. This preys on his mind, he feels guilty and at the same time gifted. It makes him fearful of competition, especially from the young. He is particularly resentful towards his talented young apprentice Ragnar Brovik and actively sabotages any opportunities that come his way.
The sudden arrival of a young woman, Hilde Wangel, changes everything in Solness’ carefully maintained world. Whether Hilde represents Solness’ conscience or is simply the new object of his desires is unclear. However, she slowly works her way into his confidence and that of his wife with disastrous consequences.
Fiennes does a masterful job of peeling back the complex layers that shroud the Master Builder. He slowly exposes Solness’ fears, paranoia and guilt. The Solness we meet in the first act is a confident, arrogant man who manipulates everyone and everything for his own benefit. He revels in his power and cunning. But in act II, we start to see the man fearful of competition, resentful of youth, a man racked with guilt about his success and delusional about his gifts and powers. By the end Fiennes has created a caricature of a middle-aged man lost in the workings of his own mind and obsessed with proving himself to be fearless and unbeatable.
The stage, a great assortment of wood in random construct, appears a little odd at first glance but it slowly shows itself to be a stroke of genius. As the play precedes it acts as a reminder of the source of all Solness’ conflicts and the complex history that has lead the Master Builder to construct a bewildering mental maze that tortures him constantly. However, the set’s true nature only reveals itself in the finale when it puts an end to the drama both physically and metaphorically. To describe how this happens would spoil the play’s grand finale but it is brilliant.
The Master Builder is showing at The Old Vic in London until 19th March 2016. For more information and tickets visit: http://www.oldvictheatre.com/