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  M.   November 19, 2010

The star of this sparse modern-dress production of Ibsen’s poetic 1892 play is Gemma Arterton.

She’s effusive and assertive, yet also haunting; her brown eyes dance with an ambiguous light and her gestures, though often expansive, feel wholly authentic.

Arterton’s character Hilde Wangel proves an antagonistic flirt. She captures this paradoxical quality with a delicate touch, investing the part with luminous intensity.

Her best scenes come when she goads Stephen Dillane, the complex master builder of the title. Otherwise known as Halvard Solness, he is a self-made man, responsible for creating an astonishingly tall tower. Yet he’s afraid of what he calls “the rising generation” and, as we see, has failed to lay his personal demons to rest.

When Hilde erupts into his carefully constructed world, she’s a reminder of his febrile past. She appears because exactly 10 years have elapsed since they last met; then their destinies were sealed together in a moment of recklessness and now she wants to claim the kingdom he rashly promised her.

The Master Builder shows Ibsen probing the palsied uncertainty of human motivations. It’s psychologically perceptive yet replete with myth, symbolism and problematic metaphor.

The action takes place on a bare stage, behind which loom a metal staircase and the theatre’s exposed back wall.

The naked design, broodingly lit by Paul Pyant, is intended to tighten our focus on Solness and his hubris. But director Travis Preston conveys too limited a sense of the layered density and ironies of Ibsen’s writing.

As if to compensate for his strangely quiet performance as Prospero at the Old Vic in the summer, Dillane is at times fearsomely loud. His diction is mannered, and there’s a tendency throughout the cast to dwell excessively on lines that aren’t in fact pregnant with significance.

Dillane has eloquent moments but never seems sufficiently charismatic, slick or predatory, and when he starts to be exploited, rather than exploiting others, the reversal feels too easy.

In the supporting roles there’s cogent work from Jack Shepherd, John Light and Anastasia Hille but none really has enough to do. While that is Ibsen’s choice, this spiralling, angsty production of The Master Builder gets only halfway under one’s skin, disturbing us less than it should.

Until January 8. Information 020 7359 4404

By Henry Hitchings