Ah, the trials that beset the Norwegian architect: inclement weather, pernicious European influence, the occasional infestation of trolls at the construction site. But most builders don’t have to contend with fiendish child-women who arrive on their doorstep 10 years after a shared embrace to demand a promised castle. That’s the situation vexing Halvard Solness in Ibsen’s The Master Builder, in a new version by Frank McGuinness at the Irish Rep.
McGuinness, who frequently translates the classics into contemporary language, has here supplied a somewhat antiquated script. The tiny Irish Rep stage brims with chairs, lamps, desks, stools, drafting tables, file cabinets (nine of them!), and scale models. (Wisely, director Ciaran O’Reilly chose not to include the stove and sofa that the script also demands.) And McGuinness clutters his language with formality: Of course, much of Ibsen depends on contrasting surface social niceties with the more difficult desires that roil underneath, but surely desire can foment without the forced politesse of “May I have a word?”, “Do sit down,” and “In heaven’s name!” Hilde, that girlish avenger (Charlotte Parry, beset with an appalling golden hairdo), finds the chat “so stiff and formal”—it’s the only sensible thing she speaks.
As Solness, veteran actor James Naughton boasts a lush silvery main and a sexy baritone—all gravel and molasses. Though he looks right for the role, and sounds right, too, he never makes this tortured man a credible life on stage. All his talk about demons that do his bidding or perverse wishes that plague him don’t suggest the supernatural influence of insanity as much they do a muddled midlife crisis. One needn’t agree with a London paper’s assessment in 1893 that “The Master Builder, is, perhaps from either the literary or the dramatic view, quite the worst play Ibsen has yet produced” to understand that it’s unusually difficult material. It has a mix of realism, symbolism, and emotional fervor that requires sensitive handling. While with other works, Naughton and O’Reilly have shown themselves adept craftsmen, they can’t make much out of this one.