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The Independent (London)
16 October 1995, Monday

Reviews: Theatre

The Master Builder

Haymarket Theatre Royal, London

'Making brilliant use of that dark-eyed, direct gaze of hers, Victoria Hamilton
plays Hilde as a bewitching child-woman '
By Paul Taylor

Solness, the hero of Ibsen's Master Builder, is paranoid about being
superseded by the younger generation, recalling how he himself had once
ruthlessly clawed aside his elders in his struggle to the top. "One day you
will come knocking at the door," he predicts. Whereupon, with grimly
farcical promptness, there's the sound of banging and in steps youth, in the
seductive, unsettling shape of Hilde Wangel, number one fan and nemesis.

Hilde doesn't represent the kind of professional challenge that the Master
Builder has been fearing, though the actress playing her might well cause
more than a frisson of such insecurity in the actor playing Solness. It
would be especially understandable if, as in Peter Hall's new staging, Hilde
were impersonated by a newcomer with the formidable talent of Victoria

Those of us who observed this girl in her first two engagements (both at the
Orange Tree) were in no doubt that here was a future star. Indeed, it's now
possible to see her extraordinary performance in James Saunders's Retreat as
a dry-run for Hilde. The dramatic function of the Saunders character - who
descends, out of the blue, on a middle-aged journalist and old family
friend, demanding a home and disturbing the highly precarious balance of his
guilt-haunted menage - is strikingly similar to that of Ibsen's heroine,
even down to the way both figures seemed to have been summoned out of the
protagonist's psyche.

Making brilliant use of that dark-eyed, disquietingly direct gaze of hers,
Hamilton plays Hilde as a bewitching child-woman, to a large extent not so
much amoral or immoral as pre-moral, before the suffering of Solness's wife
gets through to her. There's comedy in her no-nonsense, unnervingly resolute
manner: she reports that the 10 years are up and that she has returned for
her kingdom with a weirdly matter-of-fact impatience quite as though this
were some bet they had made five minutes ago and Solness was being rude
dragging his heels. Hers is a much less sexual rendering of Hilde than is
customary, but that doesn't diminish a sense of the liabilities posed by
this troll-muse. In the strangulated gurgle of pleasure she emts as Solness
determines to climb the tower and in the crazedly elated wave she resumes
after the accident, to blank out the knowledge he has fallen, you perceive a
dangerous, yet curiously vulnerable, fanatic who will only take risks for
her ideals by proxy.

Good at suggesting the flustered bad faith and the evasiveness of the Master
Builder, Alan Bates's performance doesn't have the weight to convince you of
the compulsions and the inner demons. As his wife, Gemma Jones is immensely
impressive. Looking almost posthumous in her sallow, chronically apologetic
desiccation she at one point yearningly reaches down to touch the sunbathing
Hilde, only to retract her hand with an air of embarrassed unworthiness. A
distressing reminder, that, of the mothering instinct which has been
sacrificed on the altar of her husband's career. It's not a sentimental
portrait, though, for you see how, for this woman, "duty" sometimes
furnishes a way of avoiding more painful responsibilities. The sound of
Solness's amplified heartbeats may provide the aural frame for the
production, but it's the two female stars who make the pulses quicken.

(Submitted by Tara)