Review: The Master Builder @ The Old Vic *****

I’ll be honest: during the first act, I didn’t think I’d give this 5*. But by the second act, I was hooked. A strong narrative, outstanding performances and great set design bring everything together. I feel that this play may be slightly divisive with audiences: some people will be Act One me, and others Act Two me.

The cast of The Master Builder. Source: Old Vic, photo by Manuel Harlan.


Written by Ibsen, The Master Builder follows Halvard Solness an architect and eponymous, self-proclaimed ‘master builder’ whose life is changed when a familiar face from the past which he can’t remember turns up.  But is it a case of can’t remember or won’t? Exploring the line between reality and fantasy, The Master Builder is an exploration into that most unknowable of all spaces: the mind.

Ibsen’s ideas might put some off, but I really enjoyed the narrative in David Hare’s adaptation. The idea of space and its psychological implications fascinates me on an academic level (read Bachelard’s and you’ll see what I mean), so I was in my element here!

Linda Emond as Aline, and Ralph Fiennes as Halvard. Source: Old Vic, photo by Manuel Harlan.

Comprised of three acts and two breaks, this pacing did surprise me somewhat though they are well placed. The set design by Rob Howell is beautiful: keeping one overarching set piece of wood, the rest of the set changes round it. Halvard’s wife Aline says their house is empty and the set gives a sense of it: big spaces, but mere shells. The use of the set in the final minutes is brilliant and one can draw comparisons to a similar use in the Barbican’s Hamlet. The crucial difference here is that Director Matthew Warchus and Howell’s execution actually works and makes sense in terms of the narrative. The music is the only staging I can fault. There are moments when Halvard reflects on a haunting memory and to emphasise this, spooky ‘atmospheric’ music plays. You know, like from Poirot or something. But less subtle. At first I thought it was being deliberately cheesy or meta, aware of what it was parodying. Then I realised it was just cliched.

Sarah Snook as Hilde, and Ralph Fiennes as Halvard. Source: Old Vic, photo by Manuel Harlan.

Ralph Fiennes makes for an enthralling, flawed Halvard and is captivating in the role. His voice commands the room and his scenes with Linda Emond’s are a highlight and tragically beautiful. Emond is sublime in the role, one which seemed a bit of comedic relief in the first act to an oddly humorous Old Vic audience. But her backstory and Emond’s portrayal of this side is compelling, particularly the doll scene and her delivery of this line: ‘You may build as many houses as you like, you can never build a real home for me’. Sarah Snook rounds out the main cast as Hilde Wangel, bringing joy and whimsy to the Solnesses and audience. Snook cleverly portrays a mind beyond her years despite Hilde’s childish fancies. She is most natural in the comedic moments, though her delivery in the last scene is spot on.

Verdict: a masterful adaptation which may split opinion, but which I thoroughly enjoyed.

The Master Builder is playing at The Old Vic until Saturday 19th March 2016. For more information and to book tickets, visit The Old Vic’s website.


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