Of all playwrights, Ibsen is one of the harder to stage well, and of all his plays, "The Master Builder" is one of the more difficult. For a fledgling theater company to attempt it is like an amateur opera group producing "Gotterdammerung."
Though Ibsen is generally considered a forefunner of modern naturalism, though he is unfortunately thought of as a turgid pamphleteer, his plays are extremely rich and complicated.
As a young man, he collected folklore in a Norway only slowly being drawn into modern European civilization. Folk elements often lie just below the surface of his plays. In "The Master Builder," religious imagery is uncommonly present.
There are references to demons, trolls, and even the characters' ruthless forebears, the Vikings. (Some of the discussions of the Vikings, in fact, foreshadow Freud's ideas in "Civilization and its Discontents.")
The text is the tip of the iceberg, and all these elements compose its subsurface bulk. They are not visible, but they determine how the icebergs move. Unless they are palpable, the play will seem hollow and melodramatic, as it does here.
There is no point in doing so difficult a play in the genial but perfunctory manner in which all three efforts of Tony Randall's National Theater of Actors have been mounted. The actors, in many cases not well-suited to their roles to begin with, only flail about the stage. Nothing shows any great depth of thought on the part of Randall, who directed this one.
In the title role, Earle Hyman gives the impression of being too old and too fragile to play a man who is supposed to be grappling with his awareness of his declining powers, not resigned to their disappearance long before. Hyman does odd things with his voice and makes wild, sudden shifts in emotion, but he never gives Solness a claim on our sympathies despite the architect's many faults.
As the young woman who pushes him beyond his failing powers, Madeleine Potter is, from her voice to her movements, thoroughly unpoetic, a shrill scold rather than a vital force.
Lynn Redgrave has a few solid moments as Solness' long-suffering wife, but by the end of the play, she taxes her voice and emotions cruelly, to no advantage.
Nothing about the physical production suggests a very imaginative response to the play. But none of the offerings in the inaugural season ("The Crucible" and "A Little Hotel on the Side") has been heartening.
Randall's desire to have a theater company in which actors can do serious work is laudable. The initial season has been ambitious and terribly well-intentioned, but it has been so haphazardly planned and executed that the overall effect has been merely to increase by one the number of New York companies that produce classics ineptly.
So many of Ibsen's plays are deliberately all over - at least bar the shouting - at the rise of the curtain. "The Master Builder," which opened at the Belasco Theater last night as the third and last offering in the first season of Tony Randall's National Actors Theater, is different. Its outcome is virtually in doubt until the end, and although the play has the trappings of realism there is also a glitter of elfin fantasy.
Solness, an architect - a manipulative, self-made man of rigid determination - is facing his mid-life crisis. He mistrusts his own skills - forever fearful of being supplanted by the younger generation - and is unhappy in his marriage and probably nervous about his sexuality.
Into this life erupts Hilde, a young woman in her early 20s, with troll blood coursing through her veins. She claims that a decade ago, when she was a little girl, Solness visited her father's house, covered her with kisses and promised that in 10 years time he would build her a fairy castle. She has come to collect.
Solness can't really remember that scene - did it actually happen, was he drunk, or is it Hilde's fantasy? But Hilde is real enough now, and Solness is challenged and taunted to make a new start - to build his fairy her castle in the air with a real tower stretching from earth to sky.
It should be the simplest of Ibsen's plays to stage, but it isn't. It so easily slips down the crevice between fancy and reality, metaphor and fact - perhaps, more pertinently, between what Ibsen meant and what a modern audience (unduly knowledgeable on the dynamics of male menopause) will certainly imagine he meant.
Sex is on the play's agenda - but is less forthright than we might suppose. Perhaps this dangerous ambiguity is why "The Master Builder" is rarely done here (only twice in nearly 40 years, both times by Roundabout), and why memorable Solnesses are even rarer. In my experience I can only recall two, Wolfit and Olivier, with an honorable mention going to Redgrave.
Randall has directed this last production himself with a minimum of fuss or fussiness, despite a sag of tension in the second act; and the new translation by Johan Fillinger proves admirably free of fustian. Better yet, although David Jenkins' settings are both modest and dull, a somewhat deadly combination, the acting proves purposeful and unaffected.
The one definitive performance comes from by Lynn Redgrave as Solness' duty-bound and piteous bourgeois wife. She is superb - looking astonishingly like her mother Rachel Kempson, she makes Alvine Solness quiver into life.
Earle Hyman's considerable experience of acting in Scandanavia has obviously stood him in good stead in his sensibly ponderous, slightly pompous, and authoritatively Ibsenish Solness, a petty tyrant with a reluctantly soaring soul. As the cause of that soaring, Madeleine Potter's oddly amiable Hilde has not quite that mad, irresistible fervor (Maggie Smith was peerless in this) which makes men climb towers; yet suggesting some essential sense of mystery, she never falls into the trap of merely suggesting a flighty adventuress.
This inaugural season Randall's venture has had a pretty rough reception from many of my colleagues, and I imagine that this "Master Builder" is also quite likely to be raked over the coals - yet in fairness it is a production as good as most and better than many, and the acting is shaking down into an ensemble. Now let's wish Randall and his colleagues a happy second season.
Some theater companies take years to develop and refine a distinctive style, but the National Actors Theater has accomplished this feat in a single season. The latest example of its signature approach to the classics can be found in its production of "The Master Builder" at the Belasco Theater.
The style might be called the esthetic equivalent of the Heimlich maneuver. The director, whoever he may be, assumes that the classic play at his disposal is near death, or at least thought so by the audience, and must be resuscitated by being pounded out by the actors, with waving arms and often at top volume. If the actors stand in place while declaiming ("The Crucible" and "The Master Builder"), you're at a drama. If they are jumping up and down ("A Little Hotel on the Side"), it's comedy tonight.
Though "The Master Builder" is the first of the productions directed by Tony Randall, the company's founder and artistic director -- the Playbill lists no previous directing credits for him of any kind in New York -- he is already a master of this method. The only way you can distinguish his "Master Builder" from Yossi Yzraely's "Crucible" is by the smaller size of the cast.
Ibsen's plays are not that often given major stagings in New York, and though "The Master Builder" received a decent Roundabout Theater Company reading in 1983, the acclaimed and innovative productions of American directors like Robert Wilson and Mark Lamos and of British directors like Peter Hall and Adrian Noble remain only rumors here. The National Actors Theater "Master Builder," a passionless recital performed on dowdy realistic sets, could set the local Ibsen cause back a decade or two. In place of a psychologically tumultuous, at times mythic drama of an artist's self-inflicted decline and fall is one big slab of solid Norwegian wood.
Earle Hyman can be an interesting character actor, but his performance as Ibsen's autobiographical stand-in, Solness, is, like much of the production, beyond the purview of professional drama criticism. His voice, body and jowls all quivering, he doesn't act the role so much as sing it, often, unaccountably, in falsetto. As Hilde Wangel, the mysterious young woman from the mountains who tempts him to both ecstasy and disaster, the perky Madeleine Potter is miscast, unless one assumes that Solness's erotic tastes run in the direction of the Trapp Family Singers. Among the others, Maryann Plunkett can be applauded for applying her fierce concentration to the small role of the bookkeeper, and Lynn Redgrave can be praised for bringing some genuine feeling (and a hint of a Norwegian tone) to Mrs. Solness, despite being made up to look like Cloris Leachman in Mel Brooks's "Young Frankenstein."
In this "Master Builder," when Solness falls from a great height, it is such an anticlimax that he might as well be stumbling from a footstool. Ms. Potter marks Solness's demise by waving her white shawl not once but three times in a manic windmill gesture that, depending on your point of view, is either the apotheosis of the National Actors Theater style or a desperate plea of S O S.