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.