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Sunday Times
22 October 1995, Sunday

Driven to destruction
By John Peter

Alan Bates plays Ibsen's Master Builder with savage majesty, says John
Peter.

Alan Bates enters like a lion at twilight. Like all actors of the very first
rank, he stakes out his emotional territory within minutes but without
seeming to do so: he knows he is in command, and you can tell at once that
this is going to be a great performance.

Peter Hall's production of The Master Builder (Haymarket) wastes no time
either. This is Ibsen country. Here you are unlikely to meet anyone, apart
from John Normington's shrewd, affable Dr Herdal, or just possibly Clare
Swinburn's Kaja, the young book-keeper, one of nature's submissive
handmaidens, with whom you might, in real life, imagine being friendly. But
even Kaja, even old Knut Brovik (Lewis Jones), once an architect and now
reduced to being the master builder's assistant, have something about them
that almost repels warmth. These people are beaten, defeated; and, as always
with Ibsen's portrayal of losers, you feel uncomfortable in their presence.
Through such characters Ibsen diagnoses in us one of the gravest and most
unacknowledged human failings, the instinctive avoidance of the downtrodden,
as if their company might corrupt our confidence or self-esteem.

By contrast, Halvard Solness, the master builder himself, radiates the dark
charisma of the ruthless winner. Actors usually present him hedged around
with saving graces: urbanity, a bruiser's charm, a tendency to examine his
conscience and dissect what he thinks is his guilt as if such private moral
insurance policies were anything other than a secret self-defence. In some
ways Solness reminds you of the deadly master builder of our own century,
Albert Speer, who also sold his glamour and his spiritual values to the
devil, and who covered up his real guilt, almost to the end, with an urbane
smokescreen of partial penitence.

Hall and Bates are not interested in psychological white-washing, nor in
cheering up either us or themselves. Bates's Solness has a brutal glamour
about him. If you're attracted to me, he seems to signal, then watch out. He
is a big, leonine man, but the lion in him is getting tired of hunting and
flexing its muscles. He has a swagger about him, a preening, smug vigour;
but it is fraying at the edges, as if he were worried that fewer and fewer
people will find him magnetic or submit to his domination. He enters wearing
one of those slouched black artist's hats with a broad brim, which gives him
a sham bohemian air, dashing, sinister and slightly comical. He is poised in
that fatal no man's land between our old friend, the male menopause, and our
old enemy, old age. Bates plays him, with cruel brilliance, as a man who
blathers on about old age and the threatening ambitions of rising young
talent, but who, at the same time, tips you a confident wink that he can
still look after himself. This is one of the oldest male stratagems: you
invite sympathy and admiration at the same time. Enter Hilde Wangel, 23: a
tough, highly strung girl, full of fractious innocence, totally
inexperienced in giving sympathy to anyone, but ready, in fact longing, to
capture someone with admiration the kind of demanding admiration most men
would find impossible to rise to. Hilde could be an avenging angel or an
angel of salvation. Solness's hour has come.

A great deal has been said and written about the symbolism in Ibsen's plays,
even in Ibsen's own lifetime, and the Grim Old Grouser was suitably
unimpressed. This was not just the usual irritated reaction of the creative
writer when some over-educated smart aleck lectures him about what his work
''really means''. No, Ibsen reacted to such things with impatience because,
to him, each play and each character was a seamless whole rather than
something that had symbols attached to it like study aids. The subject of
The Master Builder is not Ibsen's career or the nature of religion but the
inner life and death of Halvard Solness. Solness was never really a father:
his baby boys perished in a fire at only a few weeks old. He has never
really been a husband, either: Ibsen implies unmistakably that he had
married at least partly to advance himself socially, and the love bond in
his marriage had never been very strong.

Gemma Jones gives a delicate but pitiless performance as Mrs Solness. She is
like a bird that was born to live in a cage: a wounded, self-enclosed,
conscience-ridden creature, gentle and genteel, obsessed with duty, good
manners and social proprieties, someone who needs to be loved so badly that
really she is beyond loving, someone so fearful of life that she is beyond
reassurance. Jones subtly but brilliantly conveys the humiliation of the
middle-aged woman whose husband compulsively flirts with young girls even
though (or perhaps because) it never leads to anything: her performance and
that of Bates, and Hall's entire production, are permeated by a sense of
deep sexual and emotional unease. Mrs Solness is the ideal victim for her
husband's destructive-creative energy; but, like all ideal victims, she
leaves him dissatisfied. And so, Solness's young draughtsman, Ragnar, is
like the son he never had and who now rebels against him. And you realise
that when Solness had made a pass at the adolescent Hilde in her mountain
village 10 years ago, when he was probably pushing 50, he was, without
knowing it, looking for the real wife he never had, someone full of the
youthful energy he both feared and admired, someone unscrupulous like
himself, someone worth conquering. Now she arrives to claim her kingdom.

What people like to call Ibsen's symbolism is really only the way his
characters feel and think about the world. Bates's magnificent, rugged
performance, full of a sense of pain, of peeling grandeur and thwarted
energy, can be read as a portrait of the archetypal creator who needs to
destroy in order to create; but this depends on your acceptance that he is,
in the first place, a compulsive doer who is beginning to run out of both
energy and faith, an ageing man who needs a magnifying glass to examine
Ragnar's drawings. The haunting sexual symbolism of towers and spires, of
Solness's fear of reaching their summit, and of his obsession to attempt the
impossible again and again, is rooted precisely in the daily ambitions of a
working architect. And it is the inevitable fate of Solness, who has little
conscience but a powerful sense of guilt, that he should perish at the hands
of Hilde, who has all the idealistic conscience of youth but no conception
of guilt whatever. Victoria Hamilton's Hilde, eager and ruthless, innocent
but wise, admiring but judgmental, beguiling but frightening, attractive,
almost beautiful but oddly asexual, is the perfect complement to the doomed
Solness: she really is worth conquering because to conquer her you have to
die.

At the end, there is a note of doom, just as Solness reaches the top of the
tower. The phrase is usually translated as ''For now, now it's done'' (Una
Ellis-Fermor), or ''He has done it at last!'' (Michael Meyer). Hall and
Inga-Stina Ewbank translate this as ''It is finished!''. The
biblical-sounding phrase rings totally true for this sensitive and majestic
production. It also rings with a terrible irony. Solness has consummated the
ambition that had haunted him and come face to face with the driving god
within himself. But the result is not salvation, only destruction. So, was
the god that drove him a false god? Is Solness's death meaningless? Ibsen,
like Shakespeare, is too proud to make his characters likeable. You
understand moral values precisely through their absence in the characters.
If modern tragedy itself has any moral value, this is it.

(Submitted by Tara)