Wednesday 4th October, 2017 at West Yorkshire Playhouse.
Zinnie Harris’ (the fall of) The Master Builder is a brilliantly crafted tale of darkness and revelations which is dotted with misleading charm and laughter. Considered by creators to be ‘more a response than a version’ of Ibsen’s original work, this play feels modern and fiery. By far the most impressive thing about the production is the writing of Harris, which artfully misleads us by presenting simple ideas of ambition, self-preservation and mortality before giving the tale a dark and contemporary resonance. The cast is superb in delivering performances which defy simplicity and celebrate ambiguity – factor in the brilliance of the symbolic set design and you have before you one brilliantly constructed drama.
Harris’ work offers all of Ibsen’s characters in a slightly new light and the new work surprises and impresses with its tightly woven narrative. As Solness, Reece Dinsdale is thoroughly engaging as he invites us into his world of high flying achievement, boastful success and scheming ambition. He has just won the Master Builder UK award and he is pretty damn chuffed with himself. He celebrates his team, invites laughter with his slightly squiffy antics and begs likability. As the narrative swerves from this initial light hearted path, we are encouraged to invest in this self-serving, ageing architect… Dinsdale paints a picture of great clarity: this is a man of great talent; a man of charm; a man once prone to a wild night of vice who now just dabbles here and there. He is a man fighting an internal mentally disfiguring ‘troll’ who is often misunderstood but essentially good. The mask cracks slightly in Act 1 as we learn a thing or two with the arrival of a precocious, odd girl with far too much certainty in front of a man claiming amnesia. But those cracks formed in Act 1 fracture into great chasms in Act 2, leading to a fantastically dramatic whirlwind finale of revelations and revulsion.
The combination of skilful direction by James Brining and the sharp observational nature of Harris’ script allows the piece to speak to a modern audience and capture imaginations. It begs questions of us about our approach to the things we catch a hint of; how reliable our memories are and how honest we are with ourselves. Alex Lowde’s set design is striking as it captures the changing tones and pace of the piece, illuminating the impending crisis with visceral and visual power. Though vague and non-descript as a standard office at first glance, the designs are brilliant; off-kilter placement of set pieces and incongruously non-uniform fixtures provide early signs of disruption which later play into the scenes of destruction beautifully. With Sinéad McKenna’s lighting design subtly marking the duality of the unnatural office lighting and the stark and intensely bright light of discovery later on, the quality in the production design for this play is a wonderful example of how a piece can excel when all the elements are sharply in step.
Susan Cookson plays the long-suffering wife of Solness with depth and nuance; she shows us that the struggle of marital betrayal and disquiet is traumatic and she garners sympathy with her early performance. The performance Cookson gives as the narrative unravels is slightly more ambiguous and draws on the classic and inescapable questions we as a modern audience are familiar with when it comes to finding out the true nature of The Master Builder and his ‘troll’. Katherine Rose Morley’s performance as Hilde is also beautifully layered; she appears before us as an over-eager, over-confident young girl who quickly convinces us that she is delusional and tragically misinformed. Her portrayal of this vulnerable character in a perpetual state of blind, warped hope is increasingly tragic, with her eventual rude awakening played with perfect simplicity.
Emma Naomi plays Kara, the head-strong fiancé of Dinsdale’s newly appointed nemesis and one time student, Ragnar (Michael Peavoy). She is every bit the modern, hip secretary with her wry smile, semi-casual office wear and fearless rebuttal of her ‘dick’ of a boss, yet that strength melts away as the character faces emotional struggles. Peavoy is intense as Ragnar, the under-appreciated Junior who resents the way Dinsdale swooped in and took charge of the company once belonging to his ageing and ailing father, Brovik, played with stoicism and gentility by Robert Pickavance. Yet as with everything in Harris’ production, there’s more to Ragnar’s attitude than ambition and youthful arrogance. David Hounslow gains great laughs for his early appearance as Dr Herdal, a long time friend of our protagonist and a man who can’t leave the vices of his younger years behind him. His later appearance offers a more fiery side of the character and Hounslow’s performance does great justice to Harris’ script, capturing the various inevitable human responses to what is all too familiar to a modern audience.
Although I was impressed early on, I was absolutely gripped as the piece thundered towards the final scenes; the direction of the dramatic closing sequence, featuring monologues from each of the characters, is a display of great skill – the action is urgent, the emotions fraught and the narratives from the characters in their closer proximity to the audience are increasingly gripping as Harris’ script claws its way to the curtain. I’m less enamoured of the very final scene as it feels like an anti-climax against the gripping drama of what goes before, though I accept that it adds further depth and allows key characters to have a voice, which of course carries its own moral importance. (the fall of) The Master Builder is most definitely one to watch – I wouldn’t recommend reading too much about the piece beforehand, just let the skill and the force of the narrative pummel you… it’s a grim conclusion, but it’s increasingly enthralling along the way.
You can catch (the fall of) The Master Builder at West Yorkshire Playhouse until Saturday the 21st October and you can get your tickets here.
Photography: Manuel Harlan.