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    The Master Builder

The Guardian, 16th September 2010, Lyn Gardner

Seldom has a revival of Ibsen’s play had such a sense of otherworldliness as this revival by Philip Franks. Just outside the Solness house lurks the overgrown garden of the mind, where the hidden, ghostly laughter of lost children is sometimes heard. It’s as if we are watching two worlds: the real one and another conjured from the depths of the characters’ unconscious guilt and desire.

Naomi Frederick’s young Hilde Wangel comes rapping at the door of the master builder, Harvard Solness (Michael Pennington), like a spirit knocking on a table at a séance. Her poltergeist-like, prankish energy leads Solness on a merry dance towards his own destruction. Early on her declares that he is what he is. “I can’t remake myself,” he cries. But Hilde does remake him. He becomes her creature, as much in her thrall as the bookkeeper, Kaja Fosli, is to him. One of the pleasures of Franks’s production is watching Pennington’s Solness, a smooth operator who tries to manipulate others, transforming into a man who is manipulated, both by Hilde and his own guilt and fears. His face and eyes shine as he hurries towards his doom, blinded by a beautiful delusion, his own personal castle in the air.

Although there are moments when melodrama threatens, the production has a great deal going for it, particularly in Stephen Brimson Lewis’s clever design and Maureen Beattie’s quietly affecting Aline Solness. This is a woman who sees the small things and yet says little, but who is so eaten up by grief that she is blinded to the real truth about her husband - that he has sacrificed happiness and family life on the altar of his ambition. Beattie is terrific, carrying herself carefully as if afraid she might shatter if she sees too much or makes too sudden a movement.

This revival has a new version of the text by David Edgar, which certainly makes you sit up and listen. “It’s going to be magic,” says Hilde. “It’s spooky,” says someone else. It is robust, down-to-earth Englishness and sometimes at odds with Franks’s production, which grasps for something less solid, something glimpsed but not seen. Edgar’s use of idiom is particularly hard on Frederick’s Hilde, who is left stranded somewhere between the fjord and the hockey pitch, cheering on her master builder with all the energy of a fifth-former who knows there will be buns for tea.

The Stage, 16th September 2010, John Thaxter

Ibsen’s self-revelatory drama - in part based on his private passion for a young woman admirer - here receives a racy modern makeover in David Edgar’s accessible new version, bringing the language of the text forward more than a century, while also reshaping it to create a seamless two-act format.

But Philip Franks’ staging places the action somewhere in the first decade of the 20th century and, either by design or happy accident, has Solness played by Michael Pennington as a dead ringer for our priapic former politician David Lloyd George, complete with a mass of white hair under a rakish titfer, hands over ready to reach out for the nearest young female.

If this was the role that gave Olivier his first taste of stage fright, clearly no such demons bother Pennington who, from his first entry as the self-made architect, indifferent to the plight of his wife and business partners, totally dominates the stage with a dynamic confidence that drives the evening forward, so that his occasional moments of psychic delusion look more like tactical moves than admissions of weakness.

Cleverly using the hexagonal space of the Minerva, Franks arranges for the life-shattering arrival of the precocious Hilde Wengel through the rear theatre door, strutting straight ahead and on to the projecting playing space where both Solness and Pip Donaghy as family doctor Herdal, are sexually transfixed by this lively lovely young creature.

With an armful of theatre awards and great starry promise,Naomi Frederick portrays the nymphet not as an adoring ingénue but as a bird of prey, a claimant to a promised kingdom of castles in air, reigniting a vital spark heavy with Freudian enthusiasm for tall towers and church steeples that culminates in the final offstage tragedy.

The power of this central drama gives little scope for the supporting cast to make their mark, but Maureen Beattie hovers strongly in the background as the sardonic Mrs Solness while Emily Wachter is also effective as the callously ditched young secretary Kaja.

The London Evening Standard, 17th September 2010, Fiona Mountford

As the nights draw in and another highly successful Chichester summer season winds down, it feels apt to spend an evening in the company of Philip Franks’s assured production of this elegiac late Ibsen play, with its central themes of youth and ageing, renewal and decay.

Stephen Brimson Lewis’s atmospheric Scandinavian set in the National Romantic style establishes the mood for the action exquisitely, with its muted blues and greys and trees stripped of leaves.

Halvard Solness (Michael Pennington), the famous architect of the title, is atrophying in both his work and his marriage. This manipulative, egotistical man is fascinated and repelled by the lure of the younger generation, encouraging the ardour of his young bookkeeper, while desperately trying to stifle the potential of her fiancé, himself a would-be architect.

When headstrong, forthright 23-year-old Hilde Wangel (Naomi Frederick) blazes onto the scene in a flurry of walking skirts, everything is set for a cross-generational conflagration, which will include the architectural equivalent of donning a leather jacket and buying a Ferrari.

David Edgar had provided a linguistically robust new version of Ibsen’s original, highlighting in particular Hilde’s vigour and the threat she poses to the subdued Solness household. In the preview performance I saw, Frederick occasionally strayed too far into unhelpful jolly-hockey-sticks terrain, but Pennington was a central performance of stature, suggesting frustration, exhilaration and confusion shaken into a potent cocktail, Maureen Beattie offers a skilful portrait of suppressed grief as Solness’s wife, who foresees tragedy long before we do.

The Daily Telegraph, 17th September 2010, Dominic Cavendish

A riveting, unnerving evening which reminds us that the most towering reputation can be built on the weakest foundation. Rating ****

What does it profit a man if he conquers the world but fails to slay his own demons? Ibsen’s The Master Builder, first published 14 years before his death in 1906, distils many of his preoccupations as a dramatist into their purest essence. It warns us that what we fear most and seek to avoid us the thing we are bound to confront.  It reminds us that the most towering reputation can be built on the weakest foundation.

It has the strangeness, simplicity and quiet terror,too, of a fairy tale. Halvard Solness didn’t have the training to qualify as an architect but is, to all intents and purposes, the Lord Rodgers of his small-town Norwegian milieu. When he opens a new building, the world looks on in wonder. Ibsen accentuates his paranoid ruthlessness. No one must be allowed to queer his pitch, least of all the young man - Ragnar Brovik - who tolls away as his draughtsman and needs, as his dying father pleads, a leg-up in the business.

In Philip Franks’s potent revival at Chichester - lent a taut new version by David Edgar, smartly underscored in ways that heighten the supernatural mood, and beautifully designed so that autumnal woodland looms over an austere bourgeois habitat - Michael Pennington’s distinguished, white-haired Solness may look like a kindly old gent but there are telling signs of a personality corroded by success and gnawed by torment. His tone can take a turn for the chilly and irascible. His shifty eyes recall a cat caught with a bird in its jaw. Despite his commanding air you sense the fragility of Solness’s mental state, his tenuous grip on reality. There’s able, understated support here from, among others, Maureen Beattie as his disregarded wife and Pip Donaghy as his concerned doctor, but it’s Naomi Frederick who holds your attention most as the mysterious, alluring young stranger, Hilde Wangel, whose idolising claim on Solness goes back to a dreamy childhood encounter. Frederick delivers a captivating performance that’s bewitching in its vim and vigour, at once fully flesh and yet otherworldly, too. The glint in her eye combines innocence with hints of malice. She has the manner of an irrepressible head-girl yet might as well be Mephistopheles come to reclaim Faust’s soul. This isn’t an emotionally overpowering evening, perhaps - the play is too studied, too structures, too symbolism-heavy for that  - but it’s a riveting, unnerving one all the same.

The Argus,17th September 2010

David Edgar’s translation and Philip Franks’s direction for this production of The Master Builder blow away the dust from Ibsen’s classic play and give it a vibrant shine.

The translation invests the language with a contemporary edge that enhances the dialogue, whilst Franks with his cast and creative team, provide an evening of stunning theatre.

That said, the play remains as puzzling as ever - full of heightened symbolism and imagery.

Solness, the master builder, first seen as arrogant and heartless, soon reveals himself to be a man of fragile conscience, full of guilt and suffering delusions. His marriage has gone cold following earlier tragedies.

Out of his past comes a young woman, Hilde Wangel, claiming to have been kissed by him ten years ago when he agreed to run away  with her  and build her a castle. Whether this is truth or fantasy the audience is left to decide.

She encourages him to defy his fears and ascend the high tower he has just completed. This he achieves with tragic consequences.

In the role of Solness Michael Pennington is full of power, passion and romanticism as he demonstrates his rare talent to the full - all the varying moods beautifully captured.

Naomi Frederick’s Hilde is a fascinating and at times frightening young woman, switches from a source of inspiration to a sexual predator. Frederick plays her full of youthful arrogance with an effervescence that explodes like an active volcano.

The British Theatre Guide, 19th September 2010, Sheila Connor

A liberal translation of The Master Builder, Edgar explains, would contain the language of the period, not instantly accessible to a modern audience, while transferring the text to a contemporary idiomatic version would perhaps sound contrived and false. It’s a fine balance and Edgar seems to have it about right, although I was still surprised to hear “That’s pretty bloody mean of you” from the lips of young Hilde Wangel when the costumes are late nineteenth century.

That aside, this is a particularly gripping and powerfully performed production by an exceptional seven-strong cast. Transformed into two acts from the original three, it is two hours of totally absorbing dramatic theatre, under Philip Franks’ direction as intriguing and exciting as a crime thriller and with disturbing Gothic-inspired undertones of dark forces at work within the psyche.

Master builder Halvard Solness is getting old. Having fought his way to the top, ruining others along the way, he is now afraid that the same thing will happen to him and youth will come knocking at the door and destroy him, probably in the form of his assistant, the young, earnest Ragnar Brovik (Philip Cumbus). His misgivings are justified, but not in the way he expects.

Michael Pennington commands the stage with authority and propels the narrative with a charisma and a caressingly flirtatious manner making Solness’ attraction for young girls seem perfectly plausible. His bookkeeper Kaja (Emily Wachter) follows him around with puppy-like devotion, despite being betrothed to Ragnar for the past five years.

Mirroring a little of Ibsen’s own life and his association with a much younger girl, Solness has bad a brief amorous encounter with thirteen your old Hilde, who turns up on his doorstep unannounced ten years later and demands he keep the promise he made to her at the time - something he had completely forgotten. Or maybe not, we can’t be sure. Naomi Frederick strides confidently and aggressively onto the stage, and into his life, as a very forthright Hilde, almost pugnacious and with mercurial changes of mood from wild and excitable to a strange and enthusiastic notion that she can maybe make something happen just by willing it. She wants to be a princess in a tower with the kingdom that Solness promised - a bit of a tall order but he tries, an attempt which, as the last few autumn leaves fall from the bare trees, leads to the final off-stage tragedy.

The powerful interaction between the two central figures tends to overshadow the remaining characters as the manipulative Solness finds himself inspired and manipulated in turn by Hilde, but Maureen Beattie manages to make her mark as Aline, the loyal wife. Bearing her burden of grief at the loss of her ancestral home and subsequent death of her twin baby boys with a dignity which belies the pain, she views her husband’s liaisons with a bitter tolerance, but always aware of her ‘duty’ she carries on, holding herself erect and her head held high.

The modern language and eerie ‘other world’ connotations sit together quite strangely at times, but make for a very accessible and compelling production.

The Financial Times, 19th September 2010, Ian Shuttleworth

I’ll bet Ayn Rand love The Master Builder. Its young, fiery, self-willed female antagonist Hilde Wangel suddenly reappears in master builder Solness’s life 10 years after an incident in her childhood which he had all but forgotten; but she would have made an ideal partner instead for Howard Roark, Rand’s own architect protagonist in her novel The Fountainhead. Strip away the bits of Henrik Ibsen’s play about unseen demons, dark forces and defying the Almighty, and it’s all about making one’s life, both personal and professional, the purest embodiment of will in the teeth of conventions and scruples.

That is rather the point. As Rand would probably not have recognised, remove those elements and there is no drama: nothing to say and no worthwhile way of saying it. Ibsen is all about these tensions. Hedda Gabler, and to a certain extent even Nora Helmer in Ghosts, learn that individuality is exalted sometimes against our better natures, and that the price of our desires can be tragically high ... “tragically” in the literal sense. The Master Builder is also such a tragedy in which, again literally, pride goes before a fall.

David Edgar’s sinewy new version of the text is well served and well balanced in a characteristically thoughtful production by Philip Franks. Michael Pennington’s Solness is an edgy, agitated figure in late middle age even before Hilde’s arrival kindles in him myths visions of past and future glories. As Hilde, Naomi Frederick is more vigorous even than when she was in male apparel as the disguised Rosalind in As You Like It at Shakespeare’s Globe last year; but, as we soon realise, this is the vigour and the zeal of the stalker, someone who has nursed a childish dream, on into wildly delusional maturity. When the glint in her eyes passes into Solness’s ... well, a glinting Pennington can be a chilling sight. Maureen Beattie has the power as an actor to go head to head with these two and even burn them off the stage, but she rightly buttons everything up tight as Solness’s wife; her knowledge and her fears are evident, but she refuses to be their creature, keeping herself out of the furnace of appetite in which Hilde lives and into which she entices Solness with fatal results.

The Times

It’s a house of horrors, the domicile inhabited by Ibsen’s master builder Halvard Solness and his bitterly unhappy wife Aline in this highly coloured production by Philip Franks. The first of two outings for the play this season - the second is at the Almeida Theatre, North London in November - this staging is deliciously creepy. At times it lacks delicacy; David Edgar’s new version of the text is rather too strenuously and obtrusively modern. But it shivers with uncanny energy and reverberates with the mirth of the demons that torment Solness’s soul.

Stephen Brimson Lewis’s design of shadowy, bare-branched birches and translucent sliding screens creates an eerie atmosphere that is reinforced by the trilling, echoey sound of faintly malevolent childish laughter. It’s as if the infant Solness children, who died after a conflagration that destroyed Aline’s ancestral home, are haunting the sterile marriage of their parents. While Maureen Beattie’s Aline meets her misery with grim steeliness, Michael Pennington’s Halvard masks his unease with an expansive, roguish manner, flirting with his smitten secretary Kaya, whose adoration he only encourages in order to keep her gifted fiancé in his employ. But his mind is filled with fear of the young who will challenge his professional reputation - and with it his identity - and see him consigned to the scrapheap. So when a loud knocking announces the arrival of 23-year-old Hilde Wangel (Naomi Frederick) - who ten years earlier watched Halvard hang a wreath on the steeple of his latest creation and claims that he kissed her passionately and promised her a castle - it heralds both his reinvigoration and his doom.

Halvard calls Hilde a “little devil”; in Frederick’s riveting performance she is mischievous, spiteful, charming, capricious - part fiend, part spoilt child. Her connection to Pennington’s Halvard is potently sexual: she’s barely over the threshold before she’s demanding a bed and the laundering of her underwear. Pennington’s virile character - whose sadistic streak if suggested when, embracing Kaya, his hands hover around her throat - is rendered helpless by this audacious interloper. When left alone momentarily Frederick appears to be muttering sinister incantation. Pennington seems almost possessed by her: febrile, ecstatic, enthralled, drunk on her near-hysterical fervour and his own hubris; he seems in very real danger of losing his mind. The staging can verge on the luridly melodramatic, but it’s a chilling and electrifying exploration of psychological terrors. At its best it is wickedly thrilling.  

The Sunday Times, 26th September 2010 *****

The moment Michael Pennington arrives, you know Ibsen is in the right hands. The atmosphere has an edge - you don’t know why at first. But watch Pennington’s eyes: they are piercing and restless. Watch his body: it suggests power, the swagger of an ageing man fighting off the years to come. Solness can’t let go because he won’t let go, an insecurity of tyrants and bullies. One of Ibsen’s most complex tragic characters, the master builder who is driven by guilt, fear and insecurity, gets a masterly performance here. So does Hilde (Naomi Fredericks), the girl to whom he once made fairy-tale promises. This play is a tragic fairy tale, a haunting nightmare, but one in which Hilde is flesh and blood, Solness’s saviour and executioner. Philip Frank’s production is tight, tense and riveting, and he and his actors know that Ibsen’s symbolism is always deeply rooted in real life. Which is why it grips you irresistibly.

Indie London

Solness is a middle aged architect at the height of his profession. His ambition has destroyed his marriage and despite his success he fears the challenge of the younger generation, which leads his to try to frustrate the ambition of a young draftsman Ragmar Brovik, who is the son of Knut Brovik, once Solness’s mentor and now one of his employees and who wishes to see his son succeed to Solness’s practice.

He, Solness, is ultimately made to see the error of his ways by Hilde Wangel, a young woman from his past who persuades him to undertake and exploit which results in his death.

David Edgar’s intelligent and literate adaptation gives a modern feel to the piece but for me it does not clear up the fundamental flaw in the plot; why was Hilde so keen to get Solness to climb the tower?

True, there is a lot of chatter about the past but even Naomi Frederick’s brilliant Hilde could not convince me that she more than being capricious in her demands, which I feel sure was not Mr Ibsen’s intent.

That said, Miss Frederick makes Hilde a believable yet flawed woman, earnest at one moment, ethereal at the next. You can believe that she would fascinate Solness and send him mentally spinning into a reversal of his surly nature.

In this transformation, she was more than ably abetted by Michael Pennington’s masterly and masterful Solness. This was a man one has met and disliked many times, puffed by his self importance yet vulnerable by his fears of being overtaken by the next generation.

Pennington manages by his bearing and small bodily indications to represent the bully and autocrat and yet brings just the right touch of concealed humanity that makes his volte face over Ragnar’s designs and potential future.

His long dialogue with Hilde is a tour-de-force on both their parts and makes it one of the most stimulating pieces of acting I have witnessed in a long time.

In short, the second act of Philip Franks’ production makes it worth the price of admission. I must, however, hasten to add that the rest of the cast are excellent and provide a suitable background for the principals’ scintillating performances.

In particular, I was very impressed by Maureen Beattie as Aline, Solness’ long suffering wife, whose dignity underlined her miserable existence in the face of Solness’ tyranny.

And this bleak existence was emphasized by the bare stage and a few chairs, which constituted the representation of their house and outplayed marriage.

As the Brovik pere et fils, John McEnery and Philip Cumbus scuttle about the stage like little Dickensian mice trying to placate their master and improve their oppressed lot.

Ibsen clearly means them as illustrations of the Solness’ dictatorial way of life but nonetheless they both give effective performances and demonstrate that they have retained their characters in the face of oppression.

Despite the excellent supporting roles, it is Solness’ and Hilde’s play and Mr Pennington and Miss Frederick make sure you don’t forget that.

I must confess to a slight antipathy to the play and its subject but equally I must admit that this production is so good that by the end of it my antipathy was completely dispelled and I even felt I would like to sit through it again and bask in the in incandescence of the two major performances I had just witnessed.

I fear this may not come to London so once again I would urge that you take a trip to Chichester; I feel sure you will find it worthwhile.

Reviews Gate

Chichester sports a spry, sinuous new David Edgar version of Henrik Ibsen’s play (London’s Almeida Theatre follows in November with Kenneth McLeish’s older translation). Even given the Almeida’s master-stroke in casting the brilliant, mercurial Stephen Dillane as Harvard Solness, the Master Builder who encounters his match in the shape of young student Hilde Wangel arriving on his doorstep, it would be hard to think of a more impressive or alarming production than Philip Franks’s beautifully-framed, terrifying revival with Naomi Frederick as the dangerously unconventional Hilde and Michael Pennington as the ageing, insecure, youth-threatened architect.

Pennington, like Corin Redgrave, simply gets better and better as he grows older. Two of his finest appearances were at Chichester two years ago in Ronald Harwood’s Collaborations and Taking Sides, oppositional portraits of commanding musical figures with ambiguous motivations.

Once again, as Halvard Solness, Pennington gives us a rounded, flawed, egocentric character, this time tormented by guilt - phantoms of the past (Edgar adds a hint of child abuse to Solness’s womanising) crossed with Norwegian folklore. Can one bring things into being by will - power and what her terms “creature of the night”? Did his ambition and wish to make his way somehow contribute to the fire that killed members of his family and set him on the road to success? Has he indeed willed Hilde to his side?

There’s a strange affinity between Hedda Gabler (1890) and The Master Builder, written two years later. In both a female character goads their male love object to self-destructive exultant heights. In, both, they are contrasted with female figures of pious goodness, driven by duty.

In so many Ibsen plays, you can hear the voice of the independent artist railing against the dead hand of social convention and Norway’s stiflingly strict Lutheran Protestantism. The Master Builder seems particularly autobiographical in this respect.

Franks’s production evades the heavy-handed symbolism to which Ibsen’s plays can also be prone with luminously spare, simple staging. With Maureen Beattie and Pip Donaghy adding weight, all combine to produce a revival of outstanding quality and unsettling questions.

The Public Reviews, Howard Holdsworth *****

I was privileged to witness one of the most exhilarating evenings I have ever spent in the theatre last night. In a World Premiere of David Hare’s new version of Henrik Ibsen’s rarely performed masterpiece The Master Builder, which is the closing production of the 2010 Chichester Festival, the audience was treated to two hours of near perfection. Edgar’s version splits the classic three act structure into two halves of exactly an hour. There were just a few occasions in the first half when the modern idioms grated, but once you were able to put that to one side, you became fully engrossed in a production which was enervating throughout.

At the very core of the play were two performances which challenged the audience to become deeply involved, not so much in the symbolic notions of the play (this is the first English translation of The Master Builder not to contain the word “troll”), but in the fascinating struggle between our interpretation and consequences of our actions and the actions themselves. Michael Pennington (Halvard Solness) and Naomi Frederick (Hilde Wangel) gave performances that were worthy of the highest possible accolade. The time that they spent together on stage was electrifying. When we first met Hilde Wangel on her appearance in Solness’s house it would be easy to see her as nothing more than an enthusiastic young woman, who had tracked down the great architect of the new steeple of her village church from ten years earlier. When she was 13 she had witnessed him climb to the top of the steeple to place the symbolic wreath to commemorate the completion of the task. Her role becomes far more demanding when she questions The Master Builder’s life and achievements. We learn that he has suffered tragedy - the death at 20 days of his twin sons, and a destructive fire - and that he has lived in a soulless, loveless marriage as a consequence for the last 12 years. Hilde’s youthful, but knowing enthusiasm reawakens a passion within him which he thinks has long gone.

In the first section of the play we see Solness is extremely worried about the march forward of youth and fears he will be surpassed. He manages to suppress those around him, most notably Brovik (John McEnery), a former architect and now Solness’s assistant, and his son Ragnar Brovik (Philip Cumbus), a draughtsman, who is looking to strike out on his own. To keep control he also seems to organise the life and thinking of Kaja Fosli (Emily Watcher) who as well as being Solness’s book-keeper is engaged to Ragnar. Wonderful acting support is given by Pip Donaghy (Doctor Herdal) and Maureen Beattie (Aline Solness). The quality of existence is questioned throughout, both through their eyes and through those of the protagonists.

The set, expertly designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis evokes a starkness, a stripping of the soul. The greys and the leafless trees and empty birdcages seem to be invaded by the appearance of Hilde in her bright red top. Also effective is the haunting, non-intrusive sound designed expertly by John Leonard. The director, Philip Franks brings the whole play together in a crescendo, which almost ruptures the spirit as we move with Solness from a barren land in which there are cages but no birds, homes but no children to the top of his newly constructed house as he seeks new horizons, new optimism.

This is a masterful production of a wonderful play, which has two stunning central performance. I simply cannot recommend it highly enough.


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