(the fall of) The Master Builder
West Yorkshire Playhouse
‘The Master builder’, Henrik Ibsen’s play from 1893 is a masterly study of an ageing artist dealing with the loss of his powers as a result of various events in the past. Zinnie Harris’s reimagining of the story- a response to the original rather than a straight reworking of Ibsen’s text – presents Solness, the Master builder of the title, as a contemporary Northern architect again facing the unravelling of his status and power but for reasons far more focussed than those of the original. In these days of Murdoch and Trump where the power of business challenges and even supersedes the power of the state explorations in the first act of such themes as ruthlessness being an essential component of success and the tragic inevitability of youth triumphing over experience are both relevant and contemporary- however these themes are effectively sand bagged by the revelation some three quarters of the way through that Solness has at some point in the fairly recent past had inappropriate contact with a 15 year old girl. In 1893 this revelation was merely one shadowy element haunting the themes and actions of the play; in 2017 this muted kind of reference is rightly impossible. To refer to the issue of child abuse as obliquely as Ibsen does is in this day and age unacceptable, something Harris recognises and marks by a litany of instances of Solness’s abuse played out in a series of chilling sound bites.
So what we’re left with effectively is a play of two halves. The first half shows a lengthy portrait of a man with power, and the fascinating way that power plays out in the relationships in his life. The second half shows the exposure of a paedophile barked out in a series of sharp images imaginatively realised by the dramatist and director James Brining as staged monologues. However in terms of dramatic stakes arguably from this point they are fairly low; after the first revelation of Solness’s abuse is built on by further ones there is never any real doubt about the inevitability of his fall. His fascinating burgeoning relationship with the girl he met five years ago (a driven performance by Katharine Rose Morley) is shoved aside as he takes his inevitable downward trajectory; the other character’s reaction to him makes his fall from grace a given and we don’t actually need designer Alex Lowde’s chilling device of the back wall’s grinding advancement and trashing of Solness’ office to underline the fact.
Such a demanding script is well served by its actors; Reece Dinsdale attacks the role of Solness with energy that is alternately angry and world weary; he is given sterling support from Susan Cookson as his wife who’s own anger and exhaustion have muted into something more mundane and consequently more heart breaking.
In these volatile days stories about the nature of power and the responsibilities it brings are timely and necessary, despite the huge strides made in public awareness of child abuse through exposures such as Jimmy Saville so sadly are stories child abuse likewise needed. To combine these two elements together presents a huge challenge, one that the West Yorkshire Playhouse deserves credit for tackling.
Until 28 October 2017