A Weak Cornerstone

Henrik Ibsen poured his late-life preoccupations into The Master Builder: it’s a portrait of a man fearing age, of an creator driven by his muse, and of the personal sacrifices any artist makes in pursuit of success. Hilde Wangel, the young woman who captivates the title character, is a reflection of a girl of 20 with whom Ibsen became infatuated in his sixties during a vacation in the Tyrol. But, in addition to its earthbound concerns, it also has strange conversations about trolls and demons that hark back to Peer Gynt and give it an unearthly quality. Ciaran O’Reilly has underlined the supernatural elements in his new staging at the Irish Rep, which has linked the Norwegian playwright to its mission by using an adaptation by noted Irish playwright Frank McGuinness .

Aging architect Halvard Solness (James Naughton) is a visionary whose people skills are lacking, though his arrogance and libido are not. He works in a studio with his assistant Knut Brovik (Herb Foster), whom he has supplanted as the chief architect in the area, and Knut’s son, Ragnar (Daniel Talbott), who hopes to launch his own architectural business but needs Solness’s stamp of approval on one big project. Solness, terrified of being pushed out by younger talent, has no intention of giving it. Also working in the office is Ragnar’s intended wife (and his first cousin), Kaja (Letitia Lange), who has been having an affair with Solness. His attraction to her is partly male midlife crisis, Ibsen suggests, but also clearly, in the coded dialogue, because Solness’s wife, Aline (Kristin Griffith), has physically withdrawn since her ancestral home was destroyed by fire and their twin sons died. After that, Solness stopped building big public buildings with towers and spires; he took up designing residences with no phallic overtones—except for their new home, just completed, which has a tower.

Into the midst of this tightly knit group arrives Hilde, a young woman around 20. Departing from Ibsen, who has her enter through a door, O’Reilly has Hilde enter through a hidden panel that swings open in an upstage wall amid an unusually bright light (from Michael Gottlieb) that signals a supernatural quality. Hilde identifies herself as a young child that Solness picked up 10 years earlier at the dedication of a church and says he had promised to build her a castle and make her a princess. She now wants her castle in the air. For all her beauty, she seems to be a female Rumpelstiltskin come to claim her due.

In the pivotal role, Naughton is a disappointment, stiff and hesitant with many lines. McGuinness’s translation doesn’t always help, with occasional awkward phrasing: Solness’s “Who had the brass neck to tell you that?” sounds Victorian, and “Then shift Ragnar from this silly idea” is a very British idiom. Those instances, however, don’t account for the dull and dutiful performance. Naughton has his moments (notably in his late speech on the demands of the demons), but the master builders here are the people around him.

Though British critic James Agate famously called Aline “the dankest tank among all Ibsen’s woeful cisterns,” Kristin Griffith, holding her arms stiffly from her sides, creates a character who is emotionally stunted and yet aching with pain (she also generates a bit of dark humor from flinching at Hilde's exuberant embraces). Critics have viewed Aline as a cold fish, because her remorse at the loss of her dolls and jewelry in the fire affects her more than the death of her children. But Griffith somehow suggests a supernatural reason: they are talismans to help Aline survive. She has confidence her babies are in heaven, but without her totems, she is bereft.

As the free-spirited Hilde, Charlotte Parry radiates youth, exuberance, and admiration. There’s a frisson of sexual perversity when Hilde announces to Solness that her underwear is “terribly soiled,” and even more when she confesses a fascination with the thought of being raped by Vikings. Solness is enchanted by her and unburdens himself, talking about his demons, and she becomes his confessor.

It’s a mark of the success of O’Reilly’s production that one can’t decide on her nature. Is Hilde, sylphlike and radiant, really a maleficent spirit who leads the overreaching Solness to his doom, or just a strange young woman who unlocks an old man’s psyche? Or is she an angel, come to punish him for his turning away from building churches with spires? Hilde’s last words, “Master mine. My master builder,” leave one stuck satisfyingly on the fence.

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