Review: The Master Builder at the Old Vic, London

One of London’s most historic theatres plays host to this visually stunning and thought-provoking production built on a magnetic central performance by Ralph Fiennes.

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Ralph Fiennes as Halvard Solness in The Master Builder at The Old Vic, London. Credit: Manuel Harlan

With a history dating back to 1818, the Old Vic in London’s Waterloo is one of the most important sites in British theatre history. With the likes of Alec Guinness, Albert Finney, Anthony Hopkins, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and Laurence Olivier gracing its stage, it was under the leadership of the latter that it became home to Britain’s first official national theatre.

It is an illustrious history that has been undimmed by the arrival of new artistic director Marcus Warchus, best known as the director of the smash-hit musical Matilda, who took over the helm at the theatre in September from Kevin Spacey. 

Warchus directs this revival of the 1891 Ibsen play The Master Builder himself, placing one of the Norwegian social realist’s more mythic plays in a melting pot with some of Britain’s leading stage talents and serving up a fine helping of world-class drama.

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Sarah Snook as Hilde in The Master Builder at The Old Vic. Credit: Manuel Harlan

The text has been adapted by multi-award winning, veteran English playwright David Hare, who has subtly fine-tuned the language to modern ears while remaining faithful to the intense psychological drama, while star of stage and screen, Ralph Fiennes, takes on the title role as the eponymous master builder, Halvard Solness.

Ibsen is seen as the inheritor to Shakespeare’s mantle as an explorer of the human condition and widely regarded as the father of modern drama, and The Master Builder masterfully blends domestic drama and the mythic symbolism in a powerful portrayal of a successful middle-aged man crippled by his fears over his vanishing artistic powers. Also racked by guilt over the loss of a family home that hollowed out his marriage but launched his career, he consciously stunts the progress of his talented young assistant – son of the architect he himself usurped – to protect his status as the master builder.

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The Old Vic theatre in Waterloo, London Credit: VisitBritain/Pawel Libera

Ralph Fiennes gives a magnetic and multi-faceted performance as the troubled middle-aged man who can no longer ignore the impasse at the heart of his life. Staring into the void, Solness knows business success cannot soothe the absence of personal happiness and the only way is down. Vacillating between the vulnerable and voracious, Fiennes dominates the stage with his brooding presence.

Solness sees light at the end of the tunnel with the sudden arrival of 24-year-old Hilde, vibrantly played by Sarah Snook, and Fiennes finds a lightness in his character from beneath the weight of guilt. The carefree girl comes with a wild tale: 10 years ago, the master builder promised to build her a kingdom, and she has come to collect on that promise. He barely remembers the encounter but grasps at the story as a dream of a possible future and together they construct a fantasy future filled with castles in sky, where they can rise above the mundane. But the real-world inevitably reasserts itself bring with it tragic consequences of transgression.

The stunning stage design transforms with the three acts, necessitating two intervals, moving from workplace to home to garden as we make our way through Solness’ psychodrama. But all three are united by the use of cavernous, cathedral-like space filled with an impressionistic listing, half-built wooden structure looming overhead as a portent of doom and a backdrop of branches suggesting a fantastical forest as a dream-realm which is both fruitful and forbidding.

Moving fleetingly between the domestic and the sublime, The Master Builder is a triumph for the Old Vic which gives Fiennes the space to thoroughly explore this complex character and prove himself a fearless actor at the height of his powers.

The Master Builder is on at the Old Vic, The Cut, London SE1 8NB until 19 March.

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