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  M.   November 19, 2010

I) The Guardian
By Michael Billington
4 out of 5 stars

Ibsen’s weird, autobiographical 1892 play gets a radical makeover at the Almeida. Out go the oppressive furniture, the frock coats and even the statutory intervals. Instead we get a straight-through, 105-minute version that has the quality, like an earlier Macbeth from the actor-director team of Stephen Dillane and Travis Preston, of a propulsive dream.

On the realistic level, Ibsen’s plot is relatively clear. Solness, an ageing architect fearful of the new generation, finds his home invaded by the 23-year-old Hilde Wangel. Claiming the kingdom he promised her as a teenager, Hilde spurs him on to a climactic tower-climbing feat that proves his downfall. But what does it all mean? You can see it as an extension of Ibsen’s own infatuation with the youthful Emilie Bardach whom he met in the Tyrol in 1889. It can equally be taken as a symbol of the artist’s sacrifice of private happiness to public achievement. Or it can be interpreted as a metaphor for the eternal conflict between duty and desire.

In Preston’s spare, stripped-down production, using a translation by Kenneth McLeish, it is evident that we are watching Solness’s fantasy. Just as the Weird Sisters existed for Dillane’s Macbeth in his imagination, so Hilde becomes the projection of Solness’s past guilt and future longings. Ibsen’s hero talks much of his capacity to will events into existence; and, when Gemma Arterton’s haunting Hilde, below, bursts through the auditorium doors in a blaze of light, she turns out to be several things at once: a beacon of hope, an agent of retribution and an embodiment of a conscience tormented by the death of children, resentment of rivals and a dessicated marriage.

Inevitably, there is loss as well as gain in treating the play as a phantasmagoria. Ibsen’s genius lies in creating a poetic myth out of everyday, prosaic reality: here there is not much sense of Solness as a working architect who has spent a decade creating homes for people. And the climax, in which the whole town turns out to see Solness ascend the tower, here becomes a strangely private affair. But the great virtue of this approach is that it takes us inside Solness’s mind; and Dillane gives a compelling portrait of a hollow-eyed, despairing figure craving punishment for his past cruelty, exploitation of others and dark lusts.

Arterton also makes a magnetic Hilde. Clad in a white blouse and baggy pants, she combines back-arching, feline movements with a daemonic sexual force and totally avoids the suggestion you sometimes get with Hilde of hockey sticks left in the hall. And there is excellent support from Anastasia Hille as Solness’s duty-driven wife, Emma Hamilton as his enslaved, adoring book-keeper and Jack Shepherd as the family doctor secretly drawn to Hilde himself. This is not the only way to play Ibsen; but, although this production sacrifices his ground-floor of realism, it offers a riveting anatomy of the guilt at the heart of this disturbing masterpiece.

II) Express.co.uk
By Paul Callan

It is the old, old story… a distinguished older man, fearful that his creative powers have declined as younger men snap at his heels, meets a much younger girl who helps him revive his dream.

Ibsen was inspired to write The Master Builder after such a meeting with a youthful Viennese beauty in a park.

The 1892 late masterpiece has Halvard Solness, a leading architect of his age, realising he is at the end of his career.

For this proud man, shackled in the chains of a loveless marriage, the reappearance in his life (a decade after their first meeting) of the beauteous Hilde Wangel proves an inspiration for him to design a last masterpiece.

But their relationship comes at a high price and Ibsen explores, in often devastating detail, the dark tragedy of betrayal, the consuming needs of sexual passion as well as the thorny crown of ambition.

The ever-excellent Stephen Dillane, in a remarkably powerful performance, gives us the unnerving picture of a man struggling with the shadows of his past and the fears of his future. It is as if his very life force and his creativity are being drained away.

Dillane exudes great strength on the stage, particularly when his character is daunted by the threat of those who overtake him.

At one point, talking about an architectural design, he snaps out the word “modern” as if it is rattling with fury in his throat.

His life is overshadowed by guilt, after he parcelled up the land his wife inherited when the family home burnt down.

But the whole atmosphere changes explosively at the appearance of Hilde Wangel.

And, in one of the most scintillating performances of the year, Gemma Arterton is a magnificent muse to the despairing Solness.

She presents us with a range of emotions, from simpering sweetness, serpentine sexiness, fury and wide-eyed devotion.

She’s also blessed with a delightfully mobile face and a bewitching smile which she uses so effectively in her most persuasive scenes with the amazed architect.

Anastasia Hille, as Solness’s emotional and guilt-stricken wife Aline, adds a tragic facet. She exudes a weary pathos and presents us with a picture of a woman strangling herself with what she assumed is duty.

Director Travis Preston keeps a firm hand on this turbulent drama. In all, an Ibsen to remember.

III) The Stage
By Ben Dowell

Ibsen’s study of a man’s crisis with his work, his faith and his marriage is imbued in director Travis Preston’s bold and thoughtful modern-dress production with a dreamlike quality, part fantasy part nightmare. But it is also chillingly convincing.

As the master builder Solness, Stephen Dillane gives a beautifully judged study of turmoil and depression, his voice lifeless at times as he reflects on his past, his marriage to the distraught Aline (an affecting Anastasia Hille) and his fear of the coming generation and the deaths of the pair’s twin baby sons more than ten years ago. Sharp suited and occasionally sharp tongued at the outset, his decline is brilliantly measured until he is even seen wearily grovelling in the brown dirt which covers the entirety of designer Vicki Mortimer’s almost entirely bare set.

As the mysterious, bewitching itinerant Hilde Wangel who bounds into his life, movie star Gemma Arterton is fabulously energetic, moving balletically around the stage she imbues her performance with a suitably airy, ethereal and slightly manic quality. Her wide-eyed and occasionally gasping performance, though a little over done at times, really dazzles at moments and it is hard not to think of her merrily dancing a lot of men to their destruction.

Kenneth McLeish’s translation – which even includes an f-word expletive – lends a real vitality and freshness to this play. But it is Preston’s stark, almost apocalyptic vision which stands out, his presentation of a world where trolls and Vikings, cruelty and violence are never far below the occasionally oblique, wordy, angsty image-laden surface. It’s a strange and frightening experience, but also a beguiling one.