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Review Round-up: Almeida Reworks Ibsen Master

Travis Preston’s production of Ibsen’s The Master Builder opened to press at the Almeida Theatre last week (18 November 2010, previews from 12 November).

One of Ibsen's later works, the 1892 classic tells the story of Halvard Solness, a renowned but aging builder, whose obsession with building tall spires for his new house is matched by his fear of younger rivals. When a vivacious young woman arrives to collect on a decade-old promise, she inspires him to build castles in the air, with tragic consequences.

The cast is led by Stephen Dillane (who collaborated with Preston on Macbeth in 2005) as Halvard Solness, opposite Gemma Arterton as Hilde Wangel. They're joined by: Anastasia Hille (Aline Solness), Jack Shepherd (Doctor Herdal), John Light (Ragnar Brovik), Patrick Godfrey (Knut Brovik) and Emma Hamilton (Kaja Fosli).

Translated by Kenneth McLeish, The Master Builder runs until 8 January 2011.

Simon Edge

- "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 ever-watchable Stephen Dillane is smooth but brittle in the title role, with flashes of fury that hint at ruthlessness and insecurity … 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 … 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."

Michael Billington

"Out go the oppressive furniture, the frock coats and even the statutory intervals. Instead we get a straight-through, 105-minute version that has the quality, like an earlier Macbeth from the actor-director team of Stephen Dillane and Travis Preston, of a propulsive dream … In Preston's spare, stripped-down production, using a translation by Kenneth McLeish, it is evident that we are watching Solness' fantasy. Just as the Weird Sisters existed for Dillane's Macbeth in his imagination, so Hilde becomes the projection of Solness' past guilt and future longings … Dillane gives a compelling portrait of a hollow-eyed, despairing figure craving punishment for his past cruelty, exploitation of others and dark lusts. Arterton also makes a magnetic Hilde. Clad in a white blouse and baggy pants, she combines back-arching, feline movements with a daemonic sexual force and totally avoids the suggestion you sometimes get with Hilde of hockey sticks left in the hall. ”

Libby Purves
The Times

Gemma Arterton is busy proving her diversity while honing her personal brand - fresh yet forceful … Moreover, she plays opposite the powerful Stephen Dillane, and under the director, Travis Preston, is put through enough violent moves, collapses, and trouser-ripping ferocities to make a lesser ingenue quail. But they make ’em tough in St Trinian’s, and in a startling performance Arterton shucks off the phlegm of Tamara Drewe, and goes for broke … Dress is modern, though I suspect that by January Mr Dillane will have ruined several suits … Folklore mingles with newer awareness of psychological disorder and erotic angst as the pair weave the marvellous lines around each another … The director wanted it to be ‘an experience’, and the decision to run it straight through at 105 minutes is right. Break the mood once, and people might start thinking facetious thoughts. But it holds us: just.”

Paul Taylor

"Denuded of all the trappings of frock-coated, claustrophobic Victorian propriety, the piece is transformed into a compelling, shadow-filled, modern-dress psychodrama, played without a break – as though in the master builder's skull – on a stark earth-covered set with an iron staircase ominously disappearing up the back wall of the theatre into the heavens … The superb Arterton transmits the creepy sense that Hilde is both a bewitching breath of fresh air and a reckless fanatic, wired differently from the normal world; wise beyond her years, yet strangely arrested; uninhibited, but living vicariously through her hero in gasping, pre-orgasmic rapture. Dillane's subtle Solness stares into her eyes with a beautiful mix of intimate recognition and baffled, infinite wonder. That he may have willed her into existence is signalled in the subjective, abstract staging … There's a price for Preston's directorial concept. The proceedings float weightlessly – a symbolic upper-storey without a ground-floor of mundane reality … But there's much to admire – not least Kenneth Macleish's fine translation that makes witty play with colloquialism.”

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard

“The star of this sparse modern-dress production of Ibsen’s poetic 1892 play is Gemma Arterton. She’s effusive and assertive, yet also haunting … Her best scenes come when she goads Stephen Dillane, the complex master builder of the title. Otherwise known as Halvard Solness, he is a self-made man, responsible for creating an astonishingly tall tower … The naked design, broodingly lit by Paul Pyant, is intended to tighten our focus on Solness and his hubris. But director Travis Preston conveys too limited a sense of the layered density and ironies of Ibsen’s writing. As if to compensate for his strangely quiet performance as Prospero at the Old Vic in the summer, Dillane is at times fearsomely loud. His diction is mannered, and there’s a tendency throughout the cast to dwell excessively on lines that aren’t in fact pregnant with significance … In the supporting roles there’s cogent work from Jack Shepherd, John Light and Anastasia Hille but none really has enough to do.”

Charles Spencer
Daily Telegraph

“Since Hilde is played by gorgeous, pouting Gemma Arterton who, following her performance in the title role of Tamara Drewe, now seems to be specialising in wearing extremely revealing clothes and twisting men around her little finger, one can readily understand why Solness is so stirred. In this modern dress production even Hilde’s grubby walking trousers are slashed to reveal a great deal of thigh and she has absent-mindedly forgotten to button up her shirt … Unfortunately, despite Arterton’s glowing allure, the production somehow fails to ignite. This is partly Ibsen’s fault - even by his standards the play is excessively wordy and burdened with clunking symbolism. But Dillane’s self-regarding performance as Solness also puts a dampener on things. He’s an actor who always appears happiest when hogging the limelight alone rather than when interacting with others … And though Anastasia Hille is deeply moving as the desperate grieving wife, this cold, mannered production stubbornly fails to catch fire as it should.”


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