Review: 'The Master Builder' at the West Yorkshire Playhouse

Adam Bruce

  • OnStage United Kingdom Critic

Henrik Ibsen’s The Master Builder has long been one of my favourite plays. It’s enigmatic, symbolic and invites audiences to forge their own interpretations based on the Norwegian playwright’s scattering of thematic ideas dotted throughout the text. Adapting the play has been a tricky task for modern writers, since there are many thematic strands that can be crafted to shape the play’s overall meaning, perhaps to assist in shedding off its enigmatic skin. I was excited, then, to be visiting the West Yorkshire Playhouse to see Zinnie Harris’ new adaptation of the play, directed by James Brining – and I knew something must have been radically different about it, thanks to ‘(the fall of)’ being added as a prefix to the original title of the play.

The narrative of this adaptation is almost exactly the same as the original, albeit with a few added tweaks and set in a Yorkshire building firm, a local touch that’s a considerable distance from the icy heights of Norway. Halvard Solness (Reece Dinsdale) is a successful architect who’s just been awarded ‘Master Builder of the Year’ for his pioneering feats of construction over the years. His loving wife Aline (Susan Cookson) lets him get away with constant counts of flirting, particularly with his secretary Kaja (Emma Naomi), and he lords over up-and-coming draughtsman Ragnar (Michael Peavoy) like there’s no tomorrow. One day, however, a young woman of 21 called Hilde (Katherine Rose Morley) knocks at his door and brings to bear a meeting he had with her five years ago, and turns his life upside down.

Ibsen’s play mainly deals with the older generation’s fear of youth coming up and taking over their livelihoods, ones that they’ve frequently achieved purely through happenstance as opposed to hard work. Whilst Harris touches on this in her adaptation, she shifts her focus in the second half to interrogate what Solness could very well have been doing behind the scenes. She interrogates his meeting with Hilde, drawing out the idea that he’s been involved in extensive cases of child abuse and sexual assault, pinning the title ‘kiddie fiddler’ onto him. By the end of the play, we see very much that this is a symbolic attack on the disgusting men who have been, in our contemporary world, revealed over the last few years to have engaged in such despicable acts.

This isn’t how I expected the narrative to unfold at all, and credit must be given to Harris for boldly running with this brushed over aspect of Ibsen’s play. In pushing this idea to its absolute maximum, however, the other thematic aspects of the play seem overshadowed, and it almost feels like there’s been an additional play tacked on somewhere through the second half. The aggressive attack on paedophilia and child abuse turns Solness into a disgraceful villain, and we lose the ability to truly reflect on the somewhat cavalier attitude maintained by the original character. We’re in utter shock by the end of the play, and Solness becomes a figure of contempt as opposed to satirical reflection. We can’t focus on his other wrongdoings that brought him to his status as ‘The Master Builder’ in the first place.

It seems that everything else has been hammered into submission as a result, with Brining only just managing to pull the cast through the storm. Dinsdale brings his favoured charismatic demeanour to Solness, and coupled with the authorial and directorial vision of this production, brings to bear a real antihero. Morley excellently brings an intelligent yet disillusioned Hilde to life, and fits the profile for this particular adaptation, though at times we question whether her actions are the result of deliberate conceit or genuine disillusionment, the latter being the case with Ibsen’s original.  Yet, these performances are overshadowed by a creative desire to attack the subject matter; I really didn’t feel there was a need to throw away the often enjoyable and nuanced performances in favour of a penultimate scene where everyone practically vomits abuse and expletives at a weakened Solness at the top of the spire. The excessive shouting and overtly presented thematic footprint feels a bit too forced and unnecessary, at the expense of some enjoyable performances.

This new spin on the production even threatens its scenography; Alex Lowde’s striking modern office space which efficiently implodes on Solness like an ominous penny pusher is a perfect fit with the original intentions of the play, but is rendered almost powerless in the shadow of Harris’ authorial voice. Sinead McKenna’s lighting design simplistically provides us with a pool of atmospheres that complement the performances, but again, we’re distracted by the sense of everything being rushed and crammed into the adaptation in favour of pushing the adapter’s intentions forward.

That’s the main problem with this adaptation – it just doesn’t feel right to change the course of the play’s original ambiguous direction. Ibsen deliberately left things ominously sparse to allow the audience to make up their own minds – the strand and notion of Solness being a child abuser isn’t referred to enough in the original text to make up for him being converted into one in this adaptation. Solness is designed to be a satiric symbol whose achievements can’t outrun his past follies and the grasping opportunism of the younger generations – and in turning him into a child abuser, and almost forcing it into this play, Harris turns Ibsen’s classic into something very far removed from the original. I do not doubt there are some powerful plays still to be written about child abuse, and I admire the fire in Harris’s heart, but placing that fire into this particular play only serves to singe Ibsen’s timeless drama.

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