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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Master Builder
Almeida Theatre   Winter 2010-2011

Henrik Ibsen's drama is a meditation on guilt, ambition, religion, hubris, age and youth, castles in the air, solid buildings on the ground, and madness.

Kenneth McLeish's translation and Travis Preston's production downplay all but the last, turning Ibsen's complex vision into a somewhat simpler but still chilling study in the seductive lure of insanity.

A successful architect comes to realise that he has sacrificed all other happiness to his career, and as he begins to feel threatened by younger artists, he wonders if it was worth it and whether the charmed life he has always felt he was living was actually just part of a bad bargain with fate.

An adoring young woman enters his life, re-inspiring him by demanding that he live up to her idealised image of him, but is she pushing him beyond the bounds of reason and safety?

There is much talk in the play of the builder's seemingly magical power to make his dreams come true, and of his growing sense that the daemons who do his bidding may be demons damning him.

There is much talk of his challenging, rejecting and then missing God, and of carrying a Calvinist burden of guilt that life's activities are all attempts to escape from.

But what you are likely to see above all else in the central performances of Stephen Dillane and Gemma Arterton are two insane people feeding each other's madness - or, rather, one mentally unstable character pushed over the edge by one who is barking mad.

Arterton makes it obvious from the moment of her first entrance that the young groupie is well beyond sanity, and the fantasy she weaves of the architect as romantic Byronic hero is clearly luring him away from his already fragile hold on reality.

To leave absolutely no doubt, director Preston has Arterton behave in ways that would frighten any passer-by.

She never speaks calmly when she can rave, never stands erect when she can twist her body into pretzel shapes, never stands at all when she can crouch, crawl or writhe in the dirt of designer Vicki Mortimer's set floor.

And we can gauge the progress of the builder's madness as Stephen Dillane matches her in writhing and wriggling. (You'll look in the programme for credit to some modern dance choreographer, but there is none.)

Designer Mortimer's all-but-bare stage contributes to the effect of stripping away the domestic reality of the play and the other levels of meaning on which it operates.

All that is left of the secondary characters is the sense that they all have their own mental demons, Anastasia Hille as the builder's wife creating a particularly moving walking symbol of Calvinist guilt and barely repressed hysteria while Emma Hamilton captures the pathos of his love-sick secretary.

There is much more to Ibsen's play than what we see here. But what we see here is undeniably a part of Ibsen's play, and seeing it presented so nakedly is an always engrossing and frequently frightening dramatic experience.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  The Master Builder - Almeida Theatre 2010

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