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The Master Builder reviewed – the dizzy heights of architectural glory

The Master Builder
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A new production of Henrik Ibsen’s play, starring Ralph Fiennes, is likely to resonate with architects in the audience

Conflicts pervade The Master Builder: conflict between the mind and the body, the wife and the mistress, the young and the old, and between building and destruction.

The play, by the 19th-century Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, has been newly adapted by David Hare, with Ralph Fiennes brilliantly convincing as the eponymous self-made, unschooled architect Halvard Solness.

He has climbed to the dizzy heights of architectural glory and become a greedy monomaniac, but is plagued by an all-consuming fear that ‘some figure will emerge from the dark, screaming “Get out of the way”.’ As a result he monopolises all schemes and commissions, denying his young apprentice Ragnar Brovik a shot at success. Perhaps the recently graduated architect in the audience will feel Ragnar’s frustration as the drawings he has slaved over all night are cast aside without a second look.

Solness is adept at drawing up buildings but knows so little of home

Not only does Solness take all the work, he is romantically involved with Ragnar’s fiancée – who is also his secretary – so that as he builds homes, he razes relationships to the ground. His own wife he has neglected since their home burnt down.

Perhaps the jaded architect in the audience will empathise with Solness whose dreams of building kingdoms for adoring young princesses were shattered by the money spinners – ‘real homes for real people,’ or what Solness abhors, ‘a place of one’s own.’ If that’s what they want, he scoffs, ‘they’ll accept anything’.

The Master Builder

The Master Builder

Source: Manuel Harlan

Linda Emond as Aline Solness and Ralph Fiennes as Halvard Solness in The Master Builder at The Old Vic

When the princess in question turns up at his door demanding her castle, the play takes a darker and more surreal turn. Hilde Wangel is somewhat overplayed by Sarah Snook, and is more of a caricature, a figment of Solness’s troubled mind. To her it is ‘only the miraculous that is truly interesting’. She demands a castle in the sky, with foundations, and here perhaps the excitable developer in the audience will see some high-profit, high-density potential. 

Wangel believes, and Solness doesn’t take much convincing, that it is only ‘my master builder,’ who can deliver her castle. She does not know about his debilitating vertigo, and he cannot admit to it for fear she will see through him. In the end he will fail, and fail spectacularly. He will crash down to earth, and if you know the play you will know how literal that statement is.

Pitted against one another throughout are the abilities to build architecturally and emotionally. Solness describes his wife as ‘a builder of souls’; her calling would have been to build a home from the inside out. He, meanwhile, is very adept at handling bricks and mortar, at drawing up buildings, but he knows so little of home; of love or life outside his own mind.

 Architecture does seem to foster a culture of the skyscraper stars and the lowly housebuilders

This adaptation by David Hare accesses the inner minds of deeply human – and therefore flawed – individuals, architects or not. But Ibsen’s play is especially relevant for architecture and the built environment even 120 years after it was written.

The Master Builder

The Master Builder

Source: Manuel Harlan

Sarah Snook as Hilde Wangel and cast in The Master Builder at The Old Vic

While the ‘starchitect’ (a master builder by another name?) is still treated with hushed reverence, approached for every high-profile commission, awarded CBEs and hefty pay cheques, others quietly sketch away, day and night, hoping one day something they think up might get built. True perhaps of most professions, but architecture does seem to foster a culture of the skyscraper stars and the lowly housebuilders.

The play gives a stark reminder that those at the top, like Solness, can only come crashing down; that success and fulfillment are almost incompatible; and that an architectural structure is not necessarily a home. So if you are depressed by your lowly place in the architectural world, or if you’re terrified that your shine will soon wear off because you are, after all, mortal, go and see this play immediately. You will find it medicinal; a kind of tonic – it should cheer you immensely.

The Master Builder is playing at the Old Vic, London

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