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The Theatreguide.London Review

The Master Builder
Old Vic Theatre January-March 2016

I have a particular admiration for productions of plays I've seen before that show me something new and make me re-evaluate everything I thought I knew and understood about what the playwright was up to. 

This is one of them. Several previous productions of Ibsen's drama all made me think it was about a burned-out artist and the overzealous (and probably mad) fan who re-awakens his spirit to one last grand and ultimately failed gesture. 

But adaptor David Hare, director Matthew Warchus, star Ralph Fiennes and a uniformly strong and generous cast totally convince me that the play's centre lies in uncovering the causes and nature of the man's spiritual deadness. The fan is at most just a trigger to that exploration, and the ending almost irrelevant. 

In 19th-century Sweden a Master Builder is an artisan qualified to design and construct buildings, lacking only the academic credentials of an architect. This one has become successful building everything from churches to private homes, though we see in the opening scenes that he is not especially admirable as a man. 

He exploits the secretary who is obviously in love with him, represses the apprentice who might be more talented than he, and wavers between patronising and ignoring his emotionally damaged wife. 

And then a young woman appears who last met him when she was a child and has kept an idealised image of him as a romantic hero ever since. Blind, perhaps wilfully so, to the evidence of his ordinariness, she urges him to be the Byronic figure she has imagined. 

And something in her enthusiasm, if it can't really change his essence all that much, does at least lead him to consider why he isn't the hero she wants. 

The bulk of the play is devoted to his trying to explain himself, to himself as much as to her, and what comes out is something I've never seen another production make so clear and central. 

In his perception every good thing that has happened in his life came at a cost to someone else, and every bad thing seemed a deserved punishment for the sullied successes. And so, in a very Scandinavian way, he is filled with guilt and cannot feel happiness about anything. 

He is not alone. His wife, we gradually learn, is defined by a Calvinist vision of life as a string of burdens it is our duty to bear and our probable fate to fail at, and even the girl can only imagine happiness in explicitly fairy tale terms. 

What happens to the Master Builder at the end of the play is not the point. It's what his life is like before then, what it has always been like, and how he and the others are trapped in a way of thinking that makes that inescapable. 

Redirecting the play away from the crazy girl or the boss's mistreatment of his employees to the man's internal experience puts a big burden on actor Ralph Fiennes. 

Guided by director Warchus, he carries it with power and grace, holding our attention without hogging the stage. 

This is a man painfully becoming consciously aware that he has been unhappy for a very long time, and facing that horror with courage. That his determination to cope and even change leads him to an ultimately tragic gesture almost feels tacked-on here, as the character and the playwright had fully won us over before then. 

Australian actress Sarah Snook makes the visitor far less weird and dangerous than other actresses I've seen in the role, generously underplaying to keep the focus on Fiennes, and there is solid support from Linda Emond as the wife, Martin Hutson as the apprentice and the rest of the excellent cast.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - The Master Builder  - Old Vic Theatre 2016  
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