Though it may be one of his more rarely performed pieces, The Master Builder, the fourth play in Matthew Warchus’ début season at The Old Vic, definitely reinforces my belief in that one fact. And my belief that a two hour play does not need two intervals, but more of that later.
Dress it up however you like, but The Master Builder is essentially the story of a man having a midlife crisis. Harvard Solness is said master builder (not architect, because he learned on the job) and the catalyst of said crisis is the sudden and improbably return to his life of the enigmatic Hilda, a young woman he last saw a decade ago but on whom he apparently made quite the impression.
Solness is a deeply unpleasant character; callous, manipulative and self-centred to the point of madness. He is almost impossible to sympathise with and one of the many admirable qualities of the Old Vic’s production is that it never really invites you to try. Hilda is, in perhaps slightly different ways, just as bad and their relationship, for what it is, consists solely of toxic and ultimately tragic enabling of each other’s delusions of grandeur. It’s hard to invest that much in either of them especially, this being an Ibsen play, when you know that at least one of them is going to die horribly.
And I think that’s my main criticism of this production really; it never succeeds in building the tension necessary to sustain it as a real, compelling tragedy. It starts off very well, with the first of its three (yes, three) acts played as a very black comedy in a not dissimilar vein to Shaw’s Man and Superman which I loved so much at the National last year. After the first interval the change in tone to something much blacker and more serious is stark and slightly jarring, the humour is all but gone and the production starts to stall. It is also in this second act that it becomes very apparent who is going to die and how, so it’s therefore very frustrating when the lights go up for a second interval. The third act is incredibly short and feels like it’s just rushing towards the inevitable conclusion; no tension is built up because there’s no time and everyone knows what’s going to happen anyway. This is not a long play - take the intervals out and it’s just over two hours - and it doesn’t need two intervals. The position of the first one makes the change in tone feel incredibly severe and the unnecessary second one saps the momentum from the ‘serious’ part of the play. It’s a frustrating and artistically indulgent structural weakness that, though it doesn't ruin the production, is certainly a major distraction.
Which is a shame as there’s a lot of good stuff going on elsewhere, including a couple of standout performances that are certainly worth a few hours of anyone’s time. It more or less goes without saying that Ralph Fiennes is an excellent Harvard Solness because Ralph Fiennes is an excellent everything. Picking up where his Jack Tanner (which is still a better performance for my money) left off, he deals with the play’s early humour with an easy, nasty charm which builds across the three acts into something altogether less easy and far more nasty. Solness isn't one for losing his temper, but the occasional flashes of out and out rage are genuinely frightening and a perfect outlet to show off Fiennes’ ridiculously velvety vocal projection. Whilst for me Sarah Snook’s Hilda is a weak link (there’s not enough about her to make Hilda the plausible, sexual character she needs to be), Fiennes is given a considerable run for his money by Linda Edmond as Solness’ long, LONG suffering wife Aline who delivers a stoic, touching, nuanced performance that ensures this production isn't a one trick pony. With far less stage time and far less backstory, Aline is just as interesting a character as her husband and Edmond’s performance is just as good as Fiennes’.
Technically, there’s much to admire too. Though I could've done without the flashes of ‘pay attention: something important is being said’ music - because I have both ears and a brain and can work that out for myself thankyouverymuch - the stripped back design of the play works well, particularly when fire effects are called for. And, despite my complaining about the structure, David Hare’s adaptation and Matthew Warchus’ direction combine to deliver a pacey and clear rendering of the story.
Though The Master Builder didn't quite do it for me, I still think it’s worth seeing. There are some great performances nestling away in this production that justify the price of a (cheaper) ticket by themselves and there’s enough going on in the play to keep it from being boring even if it never quite manages to be truly exciting either.
The Master Builder is at The Old Vic until March 19th.