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The Daily Telegraph
16 October 1995, Monday

The Arts: Alan Bates fails to light the sexual fire
By Charles Spencer


The Master Builder

Haymarket Theatre

WHEN The Master Builder was given its London premiere in 1893, The Daily
Telegraph's critic, Clement Scott, wrote: "One may compare it to the
sensations of a man who witnesses a play written, rehearsed and acted by
lunatics." It is de rigueur to mock Scott today, but there is a kind of
baffled honesty in his response. How could a rigidly conventional late
Victorian understand The Master Builder? More than a century on, it still
seems a strikingly modern work. Written when Ibsen was 64, it seethes with
sexual passion and dangerously repressed guilt. In its images of huge towers
and laurel wreaths lovingly placed over their weathercocks, the play is
almost comically awash with Freudian symbolism. What's remarkable is that
Ibsen wrote it several years before Freud began publishing his case
histories. The sense of subconscious desire which pervades the play now
seems to be its most prescient quality. But it is an exceptionally tough
work to bring alive on stage, because the modernity is accompanied by much
that now seems old-fashioned. The writing is at times overwrought, and there
are all the tired tricks of the well-made play - the long-delayed revelation
that the master builder, Solness, and his wife had twin boys who died in
infancy, for instance. And the climax, in which Solness climbs his last
tower, is a preposterous mixture of symbolism and melodrama. In Peter Hall's
fine new staging, however, there is no doubt that the play still grips.

Hall combines psychologically penetrating performances with the suggestion
that this isn't quite a work of straightforward naturalism. There's a
mood-intensifying soundscape by Matt McKenzie featuring heartbeats, ominous
rumblings and fleeting moments of beautiful harmony. And Timothy O'Brien's
grey, atmospheric design conjures up a joyless, claustrophobic home in which
the light is always shut out and children have never been heard to laugh.
Alan Bates plays Solness with impressive authority, gradually laying bare
the character's darkness - his obsessive jealousy of a talented potential
rival, the conviction that his success is founded on the guilt of his own
desires, the incipient fear of madness. But the performance stops just short
of greatness, because it misses the sexual passion. Ibsen's depiction of an
elderly man's infatuation with a young girl was autobiographical, and it is
the fire that ought to burn at the heart of the play. Bates, however, never
quite succeeds in suggesting a character who has been overwhelmed by a late
vision of love. This is surprising, since the newcomer Victoria Hamilton
gives a sensationally good performance as Hilde, the wild child who lures
him to his death. As she arrives on stage in her sweat-stained walking
outfit, she brings an extraordinary unbuttoned sexuality into this cold
house of buried grief. Better still, she captures the manipulative wiles and
childlike petulance of a character Ibsen himself seems to regard with a
mixture of lust and terror. There is also a beautifully understated
performance from Gemma Jones as the lonely wife. The scene in which she
reveals how grief for her dead children has been transferred to inanimate
dolls is the most emotionally devastating insight in this fascinating play.

(Submitted by Tara)