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Patrick Stewart makes a welcome return to the London stage with
a magnetic and memorable performance as the successful architect Halvard Solness in Henrik
Ibsens classic exploration of middle age, The Master Builder. He is
magnificently supported by Sue Johnston as his cold and dutiful wife, Aline, and Lisa
Dillon, (in a highly impressive West End debut) as Hilde Wangel, the young girl who enters
his life to become his inspiration.
Written in 1892, when Ibsen was 64 years old, the play is a masterpiece of his maturity when at last exposition and melodrama are seamlessly woven into the fabric of the play. It is also a highly autobiographical piece a response to his (platonic) affair with 18 year old Emily Bardach on a holiday in the Austrian Alps four years earlier. Indeed, when she first saw the play in 1908 (two years after Ibsens death), Miss Bardach commented, "I didnt see myself, but I saw him. There is something of me in Hilde, but in Solness there is little that is not Ibsen." It is because the play is a result of soul searching by Ibsen himself that it has such an intensity and inner fire which director Anthony Page feeds upon to create a production which is white hot with tension.
Halvard Solness is at the pinnacle of his success as the master builder of a prosperous Norwegian town. Indeed he has designed every major building in it. But he fears that one day "Youth will come knocking at the door" and that he will become usurped from his cherished position. Yet ironically he is attracted to youth, in the form of Kaia, the fiance of his assistant, Ragnar, who he constantly keeps down. His flirtations are a solace against his bloodless marriage to Aline. Into his life comes Hilde Wangel young, attractive and high spirited, demanding "the kingdom for a princess" he had promised her ten years earlier as a child. Will she be his muse or his nemesis?
As Solness, Patrick Stewart commands the stage with a steely stillness. His cool control of his office in Act One is matched by his effortless flirtation with Kaia and his confident rebuffs of his wifes sarcastic remarks, putting into sharp relief his sudden angry outbursts and suggesting his vulnerability underneath. There is a tangible sexual tension between Hilde and Solness from the first, as Stewart betrays his attraction through his gentle smiles at her flattery; his attempts to maintain his hold on the arm of his chair and the steady circular motion of his highly polished boot. It is a masterpiece of restrained acting.
Yet he is also masterful in presenting the fears and anguish of the man underneath. He powerfully conveys the idea of a man who is alone and lost in the midst of his own success and communicates a genuine helplessness and a quiet emotional hesitancy which is truly moving as he pours out his anxieties to Hilde. For that is what he really needs not inspiration, but someone to talk to.
Lisa Dillon as Hilde is flirtatious with every line and move, always pulling back from the precipice at the last moment. She and Stewart effortlessly create sexual tension between them. She personifies the fire of youth carrying away not only Solness but also the audience. Yet she plays the insensitivity of youth, too, in her inability to appreciate Solnesss problems.
Sue Johnston creates a bleak portrait of the dutiful wife, Aline. She is like a chill breeze with her every entrance. Coldly sarcastic to Solnesss philandering, she accepts Hilde under her roof with frozen dignity. Hers is also a performance of icy restraint and wry humor. Her repeated line: "It is my duty" freezes one to the marrow.
This trio of intense performances are set into relief by Hildegard Bechtlers high, cool interiors and a chill misty forest in the last act. Howard Harrisons bright lighting matches the intense moods in the production. The supporting cast similarly add to the tense atmosphere, notably Katherine Manners neurotic Kaia.
London, July 7, 2003 - Neil Ludwick