Henrik Ibsen’s The Master Builder is open to many psychological interpretations and is not the easiest of plays. The critics at its British premiere in 1893 were quick to dismiss it as “three acts of gibberish … incoherent and absolutely silly … a feast of dull dialogue and acute dementia … the most dreary and pointless drivel ever heard on the English stage”. The text can be read as an allegory of Ibsen’s life: a cry of anguish against Youth beating at the door of his own declining creativity.
Halvard Solness is fighting a losing battle against the demons in him. He thinks he is going mad; then Hilde Wangel re-enters his life. Ten years before the play began, when she was a girl of 13 she says (or is she lying?) that he had kissed her and promised to make her his princess. Norwegians presumed that Hilda was a portrait of Emilie Bardach – with whom Ibsen had fallen in love in 1889, when he was 61 and she was 18.
Director Matthew Warchus and David Hare, the translator, keep the Freudian symbolism firmly in check here at the Old Vic. Ralph Fiennes is tremendous as the arrogant, vindictive, guilt-ridden Solness; and the performance builds to a powerful climax – which seems less to do with living out a sexual fantasy and more to do with hubris and blasphemy.
Sarah Snook is excellent as the egotistical Hilde, a predatory tease, who prefers to see her childhood hero dead instead of less than perfect. So is Linda Emond, as the neglected, dutiful Mrs Solness, who, frighteningly, admits she loved her dolls more than her children.
Peter Shaffer, now 89, probably best known today as the author of Amadeus and Equus, had his first big critical and commercial success in 1958 with Five Finger Exercise. Watching Jamie Glover’s excellently acted revival at the Coronet Print Room in Notting Hill Gate, I wondered why it has had no major revival since then.
A young German (Lorne MacFadyen), who has come to England to start a new life, is tutor to a teenage girl and is disastrously unaware of the emotional effects he is having on her pretentious mother (Lucy Cohu), her humiliated father (Jason Merrells) and her sensitive brother (Tom Morley).
The horror of losing a child in an accident must be every parent’s worst fear and nightmare. American playwright David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Rabbit Hole, at Hampstead Theatre, examines the effect it has on a grief-stricken couple’s relationship with each other as well as with family and strangers, eight months after the tragedy.
The performance is not as overwhelming as it should be. But then Lindsay-Abaire has declared the play is sad enough and that he didn’t want the director, Edward Hall, and the actors, Claire Skinner and Tom Goodman-Hill, to make it any sadder.
At Jermyn Street Theatre, Matthew Bunn in Lee Tannen’s autobiographical I Loved Lucy is very amusing as a camp young man who is absolutely besotted with Lucille Ball, the brilliant screwball comedienne (played by Sandra Dickinson), 40 years his senior and now well past her prime.
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