Halvard Solness, Ibsen’s Master Builder, is both made and unmade by heights. A selfish manipulator of both employees and rivals, he eases his conscience by convincing himself that he is being manipulated by God. Conquering vertigo to climb a tower he has built is his way of breaking out from this control. But the next time he climbs one will be his undoing.
In Vicki Mortimer’s spare but arresting design for American director Travis Preston at the Almeida, the office of Solness’ provincial practice has become a dungeon-like pit. The floor is strewn with earth and sawdust, and inner rooms are at a lower level than the front of the stage, in a kind of reverse rake that means we can only see the upper half of the characters. The tower has become a long staircase crossing the back wall, to be ascended or descended in slow motion.
The ever-watchable Stephen Dillane is smooth but brittle in the title role, with flashes of fury that hint at ruthlessness and insecurity. He toys with his overwrought secretary Kaja (Emma Hamilton), but the mysterious Hilde Wangel, a bewitching young woman who arrives in a messianic blaze of light and claims he kissed her as a child, bowls him over.
Gemma Arterton’s fresh-faced Hilde is an androgynous coquette who exerts her authority with a puckish, other-worldly power. She is a confident actress putting her elfin looks to good use, and is far more than the “Bond girl” she has become in the press. Meanwhile Anastasia Hille provides superb support as Solness’ spectral wife Aline, offering welcome touches of humour with her internalised, understated asides.
With its stylised moves and radical design the production is visually unforgettable, and Arterton’s final, spitting madness underlines the emotional intensity at play. But those unbuttoned emotions are sometimes more hindrance than help in unpacking the complex psychologies of this notoriously difficult work.