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Psychosexual wot-not: Sarah Snook and Ralph Fiennes in “The Master Builder” (©Manuel Harlan)


Irritated by the assured bounciness of the young, while recalling the days when possibilities looked as wide as the Sognefjord? Then The Master Builder (at the Old Vic until March 19) is the play for you. Ibsen’s portrait of Halvard Solness is a bleak reckoning with ambition, suppressed longings and the price paid for fame. Solness is so haunted by his own youthful ruthlessness that he sidelines the son of his erstwhile rival Brovik, repeating the pattern of cruelty, while painfully aware that he cannot escape it.

Ralph Fiennes’s portrayal of the grand local anti-hero is a vision of a man at war with himself from the moment we meet him, snippily flirting with his adoring book-keeper in the presence of his passive-aggressive wife (Linda Emond) and changing his mind about his demands.

The vertiginous set by Rob Howell makes the most of the ironies of Solness’s incarceration in a grand building of his own design. We are deep in pre-Freudian psycho-sexual wot-not here, with Solness’s foolhardy desire to conquer his vertigo by climbing the steeple of his latest creation and Hilde’s pre-sexual fixation on an adored figure who will become her victim.

Sarah Snook as Hilde is a one-woman reincarnation of the Rhine maidens stomping in from the Norwegian valleys to create havoc in the chilly interiors of the childless Solness household. There’s still a good dollop of her native Australian in Snook’s forthright delivery. But she is not yet quite seasoned enough a stage presence to carry it off over the long second act and the contralto bellowing grows wearisome. As stunning as Snook is (she stars in the cult sci-fi flick Predestination as a gorgeous time traveller), the strident delivery seems so out of kilter with the period as to throw the production into an entirely different century.

Fiennes, however, has a role that suits his ability to play maudlin, self-obsessed characters and still garner empathy. When he describes his callousness towards his wife, after the death of their twin babies in a fire, it is with the awful precision of a man who can remember and observe suffering but never regret or revise his part in it.

Matthew Warchus’s direction is precise and David Hare’s liberties with the text are more than usually justified by Ibsen’s note that he felt the play would need “continually updating”. It is a ride that lurches between the mythical, the real and the subconscious, with shots of madness and melodrama. Fortunately, Fiennes keeps control of this powerful dramatic locomotive so that when the inevitable crash comes, the destruction is a jolt: all the more so because we saw it coming.

If one contemporary European dramatist sits in the tradition of the classic psychological drama, it is Florian Zeller, the French writer whose spare studies of human frailty and canny manipulation of our perceptions mkes him a worthy successor to Yasmina Reza. In Britain, Zeller has been blessed with skilful adaptations by Christopher Hampton, the silkiest master of the craft.

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