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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Master Builder
Albery Theatre       2003

Ibsen's rarely-performed late play is given an engrossing and frequently thrilling production in a strong and colloquial adaptation by John Logan, directed by Anthony Page to bring out all its psychological and emotional riches.

A provincial architect lives a settled if emotionally empty life, his marriage forever frozen by past griefs and guilts, and his staff held in thrall by a mix of hero worship and fear.

Suddenly a young woman appears, reminding him that they met when she was a child, and insisting that he be the heroic figure he seemed to her then. Though her idolatry is excessive, to say the least, it does renew his capacity for hope and passion.

But is it too late for him to change, and is the fantasy of renewal - the 'castles in the air' the play repeatedly invokes - more dangerous than the stasis he was in?

As is fast becoming the norm in the West End, a play like this can only be done with a TV or movie star to pull in the tourists. But long before his Star Trek days Patrick Stewart was a mainstay of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and unlike some other Hollywood visitors, he holds the stage with absolute authority and contributes significantly to the play's success.

Stewart lets us see the man's complexity and even contradictions vain, egotistical, manipulative, but also insecure and carrying deep inner pain.

Take, for example, the opening situation, before the plot proper even begins. The architect knows that his mousy secretary is in love with him and that his token flirting with her gives pain to his wife.

But he does it anyway, in part because he enjoys the adulation and in part because it helps keep the girl's boyfriend, a junior architect who might become a competitor, under his control.

That's a lot of psychological data for Ibsen to hit us with, but Stewart not only takes us through it all, but makes it all real. And because the character is so believably complex, he holds our attention and sympathy even at his cruelest.

So when the girl arrives with her insane fantasy image of him, we follow Stewart through the process of being drawn into it, understanding, believing and caring all the way.

As the girl, Lisa Dillon has the courage to let us see that this bringer of new life may in fact be barking mad, and thus massively enriches the play's emotional texture.

Sue Johnston also helps anchor the play in an emotional reality as the tortured wife; and strong support comes from Edward de Souza, Katherine Manners, Andrew Scarborough and Jonathan Hackett.

This is a play about whether perhaps it is ever too late to change one's life, and Anthony Page has brought out rich and textured performances, particularly from Patrick Stewart and Lisa Dillon, that make that a very real and moving question.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of The Master Builder - Albery Theatre 2003

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