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Evening Standard (London)
16 October 1995

Climbing high, but missing the peaks

The Master Builder

Theatre Royal, Haymarket
By Nicholas De Jongh

THANKS to Freud and the 20th century's concern with the unconscious, the
ponderously obtrusive symbolism of The Master Builder has made it one of the
most daunting Ibsen plays to stage. But Peter Hall's highly imaginative
production suspends disbelief. By edging the play into the terrain of
fantasy, with claustrophobic, slightly expressionistic stage sets by Timothy
O'Brien, eerie musical refrains and amplified sounds of heartbeats at the
shocking climax, this Master Builder is akin to an ominous dream.

Halvard Solness, the middle-aged, philandering architect who once erected
(dread word) solid towers, but then became stricken by vertigo, is not just
Ibsen, obliquely disguised. He emerges as a suitable case for psychiatric
treatment. When the younger generation, which he so fears, comes knocking at
his door in the provocative shape of Victoria Hamilton's tremendous young
Hilde Wangel, it's no surprise she should be set on persuading him to stand
tall once again - atop a tower.

How very convenient, then, that Solness should be poised to celebrate the
completion of a tower he has built above the house into which he and his
emotionally disturbed wife, Aline, will move. There follows a close
encounter of the erotic kind, a spiritual reverie in which Hilde, still
entranced by erotic recollections of her teenage meeting with Solness,
incites him to build castles in the air, and be his old, high-climbing self
again.

Male potency is obviously the question here - potency of the sexual and
artistic sort. It conflicts with Solness's guilt, ambition and remorse: an
affecting Gemma Jones, with haunted eyes and dressed from head to toe in
age-old grief as Aline, pining for her dead children, poignantly ensures
these attitudes resonate.

Victoria Hamilton, one of the most remarkable actresses to emerge in years,
subtly makes the unbelievable Hilde real: she comes across as a
self-possessed femme fatale whose gravity conceals her rapturous eagerness
to destroy.

Alan Bates, always the master of ironic comedy, valuably emphasises
Solness's bohemian egotism and proletarian roots. But he misses the high
emotions of guilt, obsession, neurosis and any real sense of being
erotically smitten. So Hall's fascinating resuscitation cannot quite achieve
the due, dramatic fire power.

(Submitted by Tara)