Star rating – 9/10
This weird, fabulous, dream-like play from Ibsen may not be to everyone’s taste, but it certainly is to mine. Written in 1892, it was in part autobiographical, as it features an older man’s infatuation with a younger woman, as Ibsen himself was love stricken in the same circumstance in his later life.
The younger woman in question here is Hilde Wangel, sparklingly played by Gemma Arterton, fresh from her film role as Tamara Drew, and demonstrating here that she is unquestionably not just a pretty face, although it has to be said that her beauty is striking, and her performance perfectly pitched. The older man is the Master Builder of the title, Halvard Solness, powerfully portrayed by the wonderful Stephen Dillane. You may know him as Thomas Jefferson from that great HBO TV series, John Adams, among many critically acclaimed roles he has played on stage and screen.
As I said the story is slightly strange, Solness and his duty bound wife Aline, as whom Anastasia Hille gives a haunting performance, are both guilt ridden in their own ways about a house fire in Aline’s old family home that destroys all they had, and the subsequent death from pneumonia of their twin baby boys. Solness is now rebuilding a family home for them to try to heal the wounds. Into this uncommunicative couple’s lives sweeps in the twenty three year old Hilde like a burst of raw energy. She dazzles Solness, and reminds him of the time when as a child she saw him climb to the top of a high tower he had built, and promised to return for her in ten years to make her a princess with her own kingdom. She now wants him to make good his promise.
Such is the dreamlike state that Solness finds himself in in Hilde’s presence, it is not really clear if these events really happened as Hilde says, but he is more than happy to believe her, and to sacrifice all he has for the infatuation he has for her.
Director Travis Preston has the action played in an uninterrupted one hour 45 minutes, so that the dream-like sequence is not broken, and the play hurtles towards its crescendo. I am not sure what message Ibsen was trying to convey in the play, it felt a bit Freudian to me, but this is a magical theatrical journey, propelled on with power by the two sparkling and memorable central performances by Arterton and Dillane. A thrilling ride.