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The Master Builder - Chichester Festival (Review)

The Master Builder, Chichester

Review by David Munro

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 him to try to frustrate the ambition of a young draftsman Ragmar Brovik, who is the son of Knut Brovik, once Solness’ mentor and now one of his employees and who wishes to see his son succeed to Solness’ 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 an 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 was more than being capricious in her demands, which I feel sure was not Mr Ibsen’s intent.

That said, Miss Frrederick 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 up 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 credible his volte face over Ragmar ‘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 their 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 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.

The Master Builder by Henrik Ibsen
A new adaptaion by David Edgar
Directed by Philip Franks
Designer – Stephen Brimson Lewis
Lighting – Tim Mitchell
Sound – John Leonard
Composer – Matthew Scott

CAST: Michael Pennington; Maureen Beattie; Philip Cumbus; Pip Donaghy; Naomi Frederick; John McEnery; Emily Wachter.

Minerva Theatre, Chichester Festival Theatre, Oaklands Park, Chichester, West Sussex, PO19 6AP.
From September 9 – October 9, 2010.
Evenings: 7.45pm/Matinees: 2.15pm.
Box Office: 01234 781312

  1. Wonderful review, I’ve attented two performances and enjoyed every minute of it, and it was worth coming from Germany especially to see it.

    As for the “fundamental flaw” of the plot you’ve mentioned, to me it is probably solved by realising that it is about making Solness once again what he was to Hilde in the first place, an artist. She even asks him, why he wouldn’t call himself an architect. His reply is that he has no degrees, thus no right to call himself that. Now Hilde pictures him to be a (sublime) artist and she finally makes him go for the impossible – this is expressedly mentioned. One of the greatest artists of the 20th century, Barnett Newman, exactly says the same about being artist, there is an urge to go for the impossible in him, which could for example in Newman’s case mean to paint the greatest painting ever, to correspond with the likes of Michelangelo. So Hilde could be a kind of muse and sometimes they make you go places you wouldn’t actually even like to go.

    Daniela    Sep 24    #