The Guardian (London)
16 October 1995
THE MIND OF AN ARCHITECT
Michael Billington on Peter Hall's fine new production of The Master
Builder, with Alan Bates
By Michael Billington
HENRY JAMES was right when he referred to Ibsen's "strangely inscrutable
art". For however often you see The Master Builder, now excellently revived
by Peter Hall at the Haymarket, there is something unfathomable and
mysterious about it that eludes definition.
The story is clear enough. Halvard Solness, an ageing architect, lives in
fear of his younger rivals. One day he is visited by a 23-year-old woman,
Hilde Wangel, who 10 years earlier was sexually excited by the sight of him
climbing a high tower, and who now comes to claim the kingdom he once
promised her. Although Solness has no head for heights, Hilde eggs him on to
place a wreath on the spire of the new house he is building, thereby causing
Obviously the play is explicable in Freudian terms. But watching this
exquisitely balanced production it struck me that it is really about the
contending opposites in Ibsen's own mind: duty and desire, age and youth,
success and failure, guilt and happiness and, above all, reason and the
It is the most autobiographical of plays, not just because it was inspired
by Ibsen's relationship with the youthful Emilie Bardach, but because it is
about the artist's fear of his own creative powers.
All this comes out both in Hall's production and the translation by himself
and Inga-Stina Ewbank in which the operative word is "use": Solness "uses"
people yet is in the grip of forces he can't control.
All I missed was the sexual electricity that pervaded Adrian Noble's 1989
production. Alan Bates is a fine Solness: a haunted, conscience-stricken
figure, terrified of incipient madness and the irrational elements in his
own nature. He is also very funny in his attempt to uncover the precise
details of his previous encounter with the pubescent Hilda. But I rarely
felt he was magnetised by her very presence.
This is no fault of Victoria Hamilton who, as Hilde, is a genuinely exciting
discovery, combining steely determination with a strange other-worldliness.
Gemma Jones as Solness's wife also marvellously suggests a woman wreathed in
an overpowering, life-denying sense of duty, and John Normington is
incisively right as the family's vulgar-minded physician. But even if the
sexual tension is somewhat fitful, it remains an engrossing production that
takes you inside the labyrinth of Ibsen's mind.
(Submitted by Tara)