Sex, Scrabble and Murder: Sheridan Morley on Ibsen's Late-Life Crisis, a Woolly Stoppard and a Powerful Dose of Inner-City Reality. (Theatre)
Morley, Sheridan, New Statesman (1996)
I cannot recall a better time in the West End for the plays of Henrik Ibsen. Already we have Natasha Richardson in The Lady From the Sea and Ralph Fiennes in Brand. Now we get Anthony Page's sharp revival of The Master Builder at the Albery Theatre.
Patrick Stewart's elegant Solness is first amused, then intrigued, then besotted with the young Hilda. His explosive and highly sexual performance goes a long way towards understanding that The Master Builder is really Ibsen's dramatisation of his late-life crisis, a complaint against being an old man in love with a young girl, a situation from which no good can come.
Solness's tragic wife, Aline, is played by Sue Johnston with real pathos and without a trace of melodrama. Public attention will no doubt focus on the title role's being played by Patrick Stewart, best known as Captain Jean-Luc Picard of Star Trek; and we will also surely be constantly reminded that this production's Aline is Barbara of The Royle Family.
All of which may well be good news for a currently sluggish West End box office, but makes nonsense of a simple fact, that both Stewart and Johnston have long and distinguished careers in serious theatre. If we persist in showing interest only in familiar names from the screen, we are going to reduce still further the ranks of those who wish to be stage actors.
That said, Anthony Page's triumph is to remind us that this play is not simply about the title character. Almost every character here is defined by what the master builder has done to them.
John Logan's new adaptation comes as something of a shock. Not only are there laughs, but the sexuality is incredibly powerful: the two girls (Katherine Manners as Kaia Fosli and Lisa Dillon as Hilda Wangel, both immensely impressive in their first major West End roles) clearly find Solness's ability to scamper up his own buildings little short of orgasmic. This wasn't Freud's favourite play for nothing: why does Ibsen have Solness continue building until 1892, the year he was writing, if not to show he knew the importance of psychosexuality?
Thirty years ago, when Tom Stoppard's Jumpers was first staged by the National Theatre (then at the Old Vic), it achieved one remarkable record: more copies of the published script were sold to members of the audience than any other play. …