The Master Builder, The Old Vic


Halvard Solness is afraid. He’s afraid of young people displacing him, and heights. But he is revered as the master builder of his town, a self-made man with luck on his side. The middle aged, unwell Halvard is surrounded by similarly unwell people: a wife who never recovered from past losses, a dying employee and a lovesick clerk. When a young woman he met ten years before arrives on his doorstep and disrupts his routine, the Everyman’s life goes into free fall. This dense, wordy production of Ibsen’s late work is a tightly coiled spring with exquisite design, but David Hare’s adaptation could use a good trim.

Luckily, Ralph Fiennes’ stage presence has been found some time between now and his Prospero at The Haymarket several years ago; Master Builder Halvard Solness flits around the edge of exploding for for nearly three hours and makes for captivating viewing. His tension isn’t alone, though. Linda Emond plays his wife Aline, a woman haunted by traumatic events in her past. Their cold, loveless marriage adds to the despair that hangs over the play. Even with bright spark Hilde Wangel (Sarah Snook), the foreboding and gloom still lurks on the edge of their existence.

Despite the grand performances, the set steals the show. Rob Howell’s design is grand and imposing, with symbolic elements that complement the play’s mood and tone. Curves and lines blend to create contemporary forms, but with a weight and scale that implies the architecture is not of this era. Hugh Vanstone’s lighting adds atmosphere and shadow, further emphasising plot points, but it could be used more often to create more visual variation. Though there are changes in both of the two intervals, the dominant elements remain until the climactic final moments; the sudden disintegration proves more surprising than the characters’ actions in the story itself.

Hare doesn’t skimp on language, but even though the two intervals prevent this production from feeling like its two hours and forty-five minutes, some of the scenes begin to lose momentum. Hare doesn’t attempt to make the language contemporary and maintains the script’s intellect, but neither is it hard to follow. There are just a lot of words, more than are actually needed. Snook uses her physicality most effectively, but the rest of the cast stick to the constraints of the text when extracting characterisation. Fiennes’ Halvard visibly relaxes in the presence of a younger woman, but outside of these infrequent moments, it’s all about the words.

Despite Matthew Warchus’ modern update of the Old Vic’s interior, this production of The Master Builder is firmly rooted in old fashioned realism. It’s a real treat for the senses with wonderful performances and a huge scope for interpretation – a most excellent production of a classic, despite its length.

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Goodnight Polly Jones, Theatre N16

The wonderful thing about new writing is the potential for discovering unknown gems, perfectly formed and ready for a transfer or a tour, or a piece that is still finding its shape but its promise is evident. There’s also the chance of having to endure work that, though trying its hardest, isn’t ready to be put in front of critics. Goodnight Polly Jones is the latter. In its current state, Andrew Sharpe’s script bears more resemblance to a GCSE issue-based devised piece than a play suited to a professional small-scale theatre. Isolated scenes at key plot points and painfully long transitions with busy sound design and terrible voiceovers turn sexual assault and rape into a banal one hour, exacerbated by a performance matching the script’s clunkiness.

Ben Keenan as the jumped up, inappropriately hired Peter provides some redemption. He handles the awkward dialogue and tenuous circumstances extraordinarily well, adding gravitas and emotional truth to the HR manager with a disgustingly flippant disregard for sexual consent. Polly (Victoria Morrison) at her youngest and most immature supermarket clerk manages to match him, but as the older accountant taking that supermarket into administration, she is self-conscious and awkward.

The root problem of this production is the script. Composed solely of four distinct scenes at different times, they show dramatic change in tone and character development, but the story is neglected. This is potentially an important, character-driven play, but there’s no subtlety to the plot – every progression is beaten to death with dialogue rather than shown. The transitions attempt to fill in some gaps, but they too are overt, too long and too cringy, with am dram worthy voice acting. The resolution is half-baked, and Sharpe’s propensity for signposting (that treats the audience as if they were children with ADHD and learning difficulties) misses a glaring, albeit predictable, opportunity to tie up loose ends in the final moments of the play. The scenes as individual units aren’t awful, but the connective thread between them is most thin indeed.

Goodnight Polly Jones doesn’t completely lack potential, but it is in such an early stage of development that it feels wholly inappropriate to stage it in front of a judging audience. A scratch night or a workshop? Absolutely. Though it needs extensive work, it addresses an important issue with some isolated nice moments.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.