Modernity weakens Ibsen’s Master Builder

There are two powerful central performances in the Minerva’s The Master Builder. Everyone else is strong. The set’s lovely. So why doesn’t this show quite work?

Ibsen’s Master Builder is a neurotic and so is everyone in his world. I take it that this is how the world of Darwin and psycholgy and socialism took any advanced dramatist and especially a Swedish one. Halvard Solness (Michael Pennington) is a country boy who made good (took “the main chance”, says his bitter older partner). He’s a bereaved dreamer; a thwarted romantic. He sees himself as a transformative romantic hero who can bend reality by his desires. He’s fond of women, and a decade before we meet him, couldn’t keep his hands off a thirteen yeard old girl in virginal white. When we meet him, he’s used his sex appeal and his cunning to fend off some of his insecurities, but he’s still in hock to them.

The thirteen yeard old, now a feisty 23, bowls in and confronts him. Hilda (Naomi Frederick) doesn’t much mind having been abused (as we put it), but she does want her payback. She has become ardent and ruthless and believes that the Master Builder and she are cut from similar cloth. She wants him to have remained as magnificent as she remembers him and is angered by his timidity. She re-energises him. He overdoes it and plunges to his death from one of his own signature spires, the very item which had first inspired her.

The difficulty with the production lies in its modernity. David Edgar, in his programme notes, says he has been careful not to overdo the anachronisms in his translations, and it’s true, but he has left us with a play in which quite modern people are dressed up in old-fashioned clothes and speak a good neutral modern English. We are left with a play which we are invited to look at in 21st century terms and which left me thinking that the central couple are tiresomely crackers. (Naomi Frederick is startling sharp, but perhaps just a tad too shrill.) One might argue that this play was young once, and as fresh as a daisy: didn’t the characters seem overwrought back then? I think the answer lies in its earlier, and now removed, capacity to shock. To expose the real workings of repression and weakness was, at the beginning of the last century, a novelty. To take a work devised back then and to deprive it of its quaintness – of clues as to its age and ethos – invites us to view at as a modern piece rather than as a period one. A bit of power falls through the crack between the two.

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Publication date

01 October 2010


On theatre