16 October 1995, Monday
Dangerous passions unleashed
By Benedict Nightingale
The Master Builder, Haymarket
Ever come across a critique that read as if a prism was reviewing a maze or
a maze a late Beethoven quartet? If not, let me recommend Henry James's
notice of Ibsen's Master Builder when it hit Britain in 1893. But at least
his arcane conclusion ''the play smiles and mocks us as if in conscious
supersubtlety'' was intended as praise. The majority view was expressed by
the notorious Clement Scott, who felt he had seen something ''written,
rehearsed and acted by lunatics''.
Well, yes, it still seems a difficult piece. You cannot emerge from Peter
Hall's rich yet lucid revival without feeling you have climbed a dramatic
mountain whose many caves and crevices you simply hadn't time to explore.
But equally you cannot see Alan Bates onstage with the exciting new Victoria
Hamilton without recognising the piece's raw accessibility. Why else would
the role of Master Builder Solness have attracted Olivier, Redgrave, John
Wood and Brian Cox in recent years, and convinced a large number of
spectators they have been somewhere more rewarding than a lunatic asylum?
Bates's performance is strong and subtle. He hits many more notes than his
trademark ones, which are sardonic mockery and snide self-mockery. Yet he
never lets us forget the essentials. His Master Builder is painfully stuck
in a stale marriage and an unfulfilling job. His energies, once immense and
outgoing, are now directed towards keeping his talented deputy safely
subservient. At the same time he is half-paralysed by feelings of failure,
guilt and fear of retribution. In his way he is as trapped as Nora in her
Bates catches the magnetism, ruthlessness, paranoia and convoluted anguish.
When he talks of ''the doubt that gnaws me day and night'', meaning that he
feels to blame for the house-fire that lost him his children and his wife's
love, his mottled face successfully rids the words of their built-in
melodrama. And his scenes with Hilde Wangel, who comes to free him from this
ossuary for the undead, prove as riveting as any I've seen this year.
That says much for Hamilton, who only left drama school last year. She
arrives in mountaineering gear, looking like a sprite from an antique
folk-tale, and, casually throwing aside an uncomfy boot, proceeds
emotionally to dismember and reconstruct the Master Builder. Seldom do you
find a young actress who can listen or watch so intently, or fill pauses
with such fresh, clear feeling. She gets the character's curt, unpredictable
swings of mood, anger to delight. Together she and Bates convince you that,
yes, Hilde might indeed provoke Solness to the weird, self-asssertive,
self-destructive apotheosis that ends the play.
But The Master Builder is not just a passionate two-hander. Someone must
embody the world that both principals find drab and limiting, and this task
mainly falls here to Gemma Jones, playing Solness's wife Aline. She gives a
fine, unconventional performance, too. The coldness that reminds Hilde of a
burial vault is there all right, in Jones's parchment hair, yellowing face
and wintry determination to do her duty. But she does not leave you feeling,
as Alines usually do, that the character has completed an emotional suicide.
Instead, she suggests that precariously contained fury and despair lurk
beneath the weary-martyr manner. Give her a knife and a little
encouragement, and, you feel, Solness might not make it to the end of Act
III. When so drear and deathly a character can make an impact like that, no
wonder the evening is a gripping one.
(Submitted by Tara)