Review – The Master Builder, Almeida

Thursday 18 November 2010

Call the Guinness Book of Records! Call Norris McWhirter! Call Roy Castle! Loudly!

Sometimes you wonder about a title of a play and think, how did they come up with that? Sometimes you find yourself waiting for the title  to appear. But there is no waiting or wondering here. Not in Ibsen‘s The Master Builder at the Almeida.

It must surely hold the record for the number of times the title of the play is name checked in the piece itself. It boasts its own redundant form of product placement.

Hilde Wagnel (Gemma Arterton) can’t help but bang on about the master builder. Even Master Builder Halvard Solness (Stephen Dillane)can’t help but bang on about the master builder. Take your hand tally counter and click away. Count them up one by one and let us know how many times it’s mentioned. At least it’ll give you something to do.

The master builder’s position and career is on the wane.  He’s haunted by the past and going a bit loopy. The previous home of Halvard and his wife Aline (Anastasia Hille) burnt down, inspiring him to build his master buildings and resulting in the death of their child.

Up out of the past pops Hilde, who the master builder met and – according to her – kissed as a child. She never got over it and has turned up either to run away with the master builder or send him to his doom. But she too is clearly a few breezeblocks short of the castle that the master builder once promised to build her.

Apparently The Master Builder is full of symbolism. Most of it passed us by but we did spot some. Solness the master builder is named after the sun (we pinched that bit from the programme notes) but given what he’s alleged to have promised a 12 year old girl a more apt moniker might be Glitter-ness.

The master builder built the highest church tower in the world, Hilde wants to inspect his tower (Oooh-er Matron!) and he wanders round clutching his plans like a giant penis until Hilde gets to unroll them. Phnar. Lines like “Do you have a pencil?” drip with added meaning.

And as you drift off into a snooze watching the dull proceedings in your head the repeated words conflate into masterbuilder and even begin to suggest their own phallocentric connotation. Beat that!

Of course, Andrew was completely oblivious to all of this sexual symbolism and slept contentedly through most of it anyway.

The piece is staged minimally (design by Vicki Mortimer). There’s a sweeping staircase against the exposed brick wall at the back, and the bulk of the inaction is performed in a giant cat-litter tray with a nod to Scandinavia via a couple of pieces of Ikea furniture.

But why does the master builder’s wife water one of the chairs like a plant? Isn’t it big enough? Does she think it will grow? Is it a metaphor?

Presumably it’s director Travis Preston’s fault that the cast speak in an entirely unnatural way. Mini-pauses are inserted in almost every line and individual words have unnecessary significance loaded on them with this peculiar emphasis. Even simple lines become “I’ll (pause) buy (pause) one or two things in town”.

It’s hard to swallow a word of this mannered delivery which comes across as more artificial than an E number. Had they been instructed to study the Vanessa Redgrave DVD collection or is a peculiar strain of actors’ Tourettes sweeping through the cast?

You have to feel sorry for any actress saddled with playing Hilde. Poor Gemma Arterton does her best with her pushy, intense and petulant temptress. She must be one of the most irritating young female characters ever to disgrace a stage. Hilde makes Hamlet‘s Ophelia look almost sane.

You can see why they are playing it straight through with no interval, but at 1h 45m it still feels longer than even Katie Middleton’s wait. A break might have seen a  bail-out of Irish proportions.

It’s evenings like these that made the Whingers wonder why they go to the theatre at all. Phil wished he’d stayed in and watched Gillian McKeith buried in the ground screaming at Ozzie bugs. He’d happily have put Hilde in there with her.


Two out of Five: slightly corked or vinegary


23 Responses to “Review – The Master Builder, Almeida”

  1. webcowgirl Says:

    Oh hell. I’m trying to see all of the plays Ibsen ever wrote, but I’m … I just can’t bear it. This sounds too awful for words, even words like “Builder.”

    (Maybe this can be redone as a play about a man who dresses in black, has an army of robot servants, and like his tea with lots of milk in it …)

  2. JT Says:

    Boys, face it. You don’t like theatre unless it’s (a) set in a 1930s manor house with butlers, open whiskey decanters and boozy women with large hats; (b) all the characters are white; (c) it’s a camp musical based on an even camper comedy film; or (d) it stars an ageing, slightly camp actress who used to star in a 1970s TV sitcom.

    Why not just stay at home and watch your “Legally Blonde” and “Brideshead Revisited” DVDs on continuous loop?

    • Lord Andrew Lloyds Slipper Sniffer Says:

      And deny the rest of us the entertainment of their spot-on reviews? Party pooper…

    • Helen Smith Says:

      JT, it’s free to set up a blog on Blogger or WordPress. Why don’t you start one? That way you can review plays that are a) not set in 1930s manors houses b)feature non-white characters c) are not camp musicals or based on films d) do not star ageing, slightly camp actresses who used to star in a 1970s TV sitcom.

      Let us know when your blog is up and running and we’ll all come and read that instead.

  3. Charles Slovenski Says:

    It’s frustrating, JT. Ya can’t live with the Whingers, and ya can’t live without ’em. I agree with you, but I can’t not read their surprising reviews. The fact that they reflect not one bit the quality of the production itself is amazing but true. The Whingers are the Jacqueline Susanns of theatre reviewers. Trashy, fun and nothing to do with reality. Sorry boys, I love your writing but not your taste (at least not all the time).

  4. jennymcphee Says:

    Oh well. I have tickets this Saturday night. I seriously hope I disagree with you guys but I have a sneaky feeling I’ll hate it even more than you did. You guys are much kinder to the plays you review than I usually am. (And you’ve gotta love the above comments.)

  5. Lord Andrew Lloyds Slipper Sniffer Says:

    Thank God someone other than me loathes Vanessa Redgrave. I remember watching Howards End years ago and being unable to decide who gave the more irritating performance: Van or her wig…

  6. David Baker Says:

    I agree with JT – why do you bother?

    I used to be amused by your reviews, but now they are just an excuse to get in a few topical-but-lame puns.

    Next time, please do stay in and watch ITV.

    Of course, the bigger question is: if I don’t like them why I bother to continue reading them and then commenting on them.

    • David Baker Says:

      BTW, I saw the play and enjoyed it.

      • RHavers Says:

        I saw the play on Tuesday night and the Whingers’ review is spot on. The director hadn’t seemed to be able to control the actors who were all over the place in their wild overacting. The acting style was beyond mannered. After the first 15 minutes, the audience were shifting uneasily in their seats, hoping that perhaps they could bolt out the door without being noticed

      • Helen Smith Says:

        David Baker, please see my advice to JT, above.

        Let us know when you have set up a blog that is more amusing than this one and we’ll come and read it.

  7. Dickie and Butch Says:

    Can’t understand some of the ridiculous comments here the past few posts; the Whingers are doing what they’ve always done (albeit being a bit less rapier-like with their comments, perhaps). I agree that they went through a lull after the whole ‘Paint Never Dries’ thing, but recently the boys are back up and running. The Ruthie Henshall review and the Donmar ‘priority’ posts were excellent reads. Lighten up?

  8. Ian Shuttleworth Says:

    I must say, I also felt you were being unduly harsh. Until I saw the show.

    Fair dos, though, masterbuilder/masturbator puns were all over the place in Finnegans Wake (published 1939).

  9. Michael Says:

    There seems to be a disconnect here for some posters.
    It clearly says ‘Whingers’ on the tin – surprised at the contents, then?

    Whatever. They’re well-writing, witty and sometimes even generous!

  10. Chrs Voisey Says:

    “My Master Builder!” There, mentioned it again.

    It can work with charismatic leads but Stephen Dillane? Anastasia Hille?? Gemma Arterton??? Admit.

    Don’t be coming in my face with a Lady Miss Vanessa diss tho’ – I’ll cut a bitch.

  11. Chrs Voisey Says:

    Do you think it’s related that Travis Preston – a name more suitable to porn than theatre direction surely – shares the same agent as Stephen Dillane?

  12. christine entwisle Says:

    that blonde woman was good, mind. Shame SHE wasn’t the master builder. But then I don’t suppose a yarn about an older woman snogging a twelve year old boy would ever get down the Almeida… much more exciting by far to watch yet another guilt wracked egotistical middle aged bloke bore us half to death while some tasty lass less than half his age cavorts around showing a bit of flesh. Question: if Hilde can’t be arsed doing up the buttons on her shirt coz she’s just a crazy kind of girl, why has she gone to the trouble of putting a couple of pin tucks in the back?

  13. ms.marple investigates Says:

    I was so shocked that the WWE had actually set foot in the Almeida, let alone watched a play there, I nearly dropped my “Guide to Norwegian Trolls” in the fjord. I can’t help but think that it is the presence of former Bond girl and ex-St Trinian’s alumnus, Arterton, G., that has created this phenomenon. Okay, so there’s some wierd sub-Matrix style posturing and the ending doesn’t have the shock appeal it should, but Arterton is amazing – acting her socks off (well, she would if she was wearing any thereby channeling Sandie Shaw) and giving the best performance by far of any young actress I’ve seen in years. Dillane gives another eccentric performance, which is fine by me – any actor that Charles Spencer hates so much has to be doing something right. If you love Ibsen, and hated the West End travesty that was “Ghosts”, there’s lots to appreciate here. The comment about the cat litter was really good though.

  14. Robert Says:

    I was engaged and entertained from start to finish. Gemma Arterton was excellent. The applause at the end said it all.

  15. Robert Says:

    Why is you STILL not reviewing ONASSIS!??!! Are you not wantin to offend The Linsdsay? Anyone else feel they should review it? It could be their best yet!

  16. lalalee Says:

    The Master Builder was a big disappointment. The set is all wrong for the play and creates no atmosphere. The costumes were ridiculous, every actor dresed in contemporary dress except Arterton who was dressed like a hobo and performed like a hobo on speed. It appeared she was fresh out of 6th form acting class. The actress who played the wife was the ONLY one who could really deliver a convincing performance. This is a difficult play and needs a fantastic nordic set with an atmophere that sweeps you in to the feeling and atmosphere of the time it was written. Arterton is wrong for her part, her girly silly high pitched squeal of a voice was not right for Ibsen and she could not carry the part convincingly. Disappointing directing and set too.

  17. Parsley Says:

    Oh God!
    Saw this on Thursday night
    It was so awful- full of pregnant pauses and meaningless dialogue
    The staging was a disgrace and the production was crying out for a proper set
    Agree with the watering of the chairs
    Generally a bun-numbing evening at the Almeida (and what a terrible choice of show to have runing over xmas!)

  18. […] time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval) Programme cost: £1 (following on from the West End Whingers record breaking observations at The Master Builder, there’s a similar feel to the number of times the transfer of Pirates to […]

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