The Master Builder (Old Vic)

Ralph Fiennes gives a magnificent performance in this new adaptation of Ibsen’s classic play

Ralph Fiennes is not messing about. Ibsen’s Halvard Solness, an unhinged architect dreaming of spires and destroying his soul, is one of modern drama’s great psychological monsters, and Fiennes presents just that, someone for whom rudeness has run to habit and re-defined itself as ruthlessness. It’s a magnificent, uncompromising performance, crackling with fire and rancid with guilt and nastiness.

The great thing about David Hare‘s new adaptation – working from someone else’s literal translation, presumably – is that the performance is nonetheless rooted in pain and loss. Solness’s marriage died – "I’m chained to a corpse" is one of his cruellest give-aways – when his wife Eline (played with understated courage and stoicism by the Broadway actress Linda Emond) lost their infant twin boys; the house burned down, she contracted a fever, her milk became infected.

As always in Ibsen, the murky past is suddenly reanimated in the revelations of the present: enter young Hilde Wangel (spiritedly played by striking Australian actress Sarah Snook), a country girl with plaited hair and a big, open face whom Solness kissed ten years ago, come back to claim the kingdom he promised her and drive him to one last climactic ascent.

I think we get the message. There have been great pairs of Solnesses and Hildes: Olivier and Maggie Smith on this same stage, Alan Bates and Victoria Hamilton, Patrick Stewart and Lisa Dillon. None has suggested so fully the pushing of the old boy to the edge, the irruption of youth, the exorcism of a weird and not-quite-right sexual fantasy.

Matthew Warchus‘s powerful production takes its time over three full acts, two long intervals and some superb design by Rob Howell, which surrounds the family home with a forest of charred planks and stumps, a great wooden disc changing angles in rooms of drawing boards and towering book cases.

The other striking thing about the play is how odd and jangling it is, and Hare’s text – a smooth amalgamation of formal archness and easy, even casual, vernacular ("Books don’t do it for me anymore") – and indeed the acting, judge to perfection the strangeness and distemper of the situation, which has sucked in the old mentor (James Laurenson), now the office boy, his draughtsman son (frenetically played by Martin Hutson) and the son’s fiancée, the book-keeper (Charlie Cameron) whose affections Solness has also managed to mess with.

The family doctor, deftly done by James Dreyfus, represents the voice of reason and near-normality on the side-lines. But we’re in a bear pit of recrimination and unhappiness, with Fiennes presenting a tyrannical face to the world until challenged by Hilde.

It’s a lacerating, uncomfortable exposition, and Fiennes plays it to the rafters. Children cry in the distance, the forest looms, the band plays, the townsfolk gather and Hilde swings high as a kite towards her castle in the air. For what’s always disturbing about Ibsen is the realisation that love is never enough. Possession is the name of the game, and the conquest of souls.

The Master Builder runs at the Old Vic until 19 March.