This summer’s impromptu London season of Ibsen ends with a whimper, not a bang, with an entirely respectable and just as thoroughly dull reading of a potentially hair-raising play. Trekkies may turn out in force to see Patrick Stewart’s first West End star turn (a brief Old Vic run in “A Christmas Carol” excepted) since the onetime Royal Shakespeare Co. veteran reached megastar status courtesy “Star Trek — The Next Generation.” But for all that remains inexorable about a tensely plotted play leading Stewart’s “master builder” Halvard Solness to his doom, Anthony Page’s stolid production is crucially miscast in a major role (Lisa Dillon’s Hilda Wangel) and lacking in both eroticism and menace, as if almost everyone involved were annotating the text as opposed to living it.
With his sepulchral voice and much-vaunted sexual allure, Stewart ought to be ideal casting for Solness, the self-deceived architectural visionary who jettisons all common sense in order to give the newly arrived young Hilda her wished-for “castle.” You don’t have to have seen the same dramatist’s “Brand” — though many probably will, since it is running on the West End concurrently with “Master Builder” — to guess at the fate of an Ibsen egoist who is only marginally less myopic, if far more erotically driven, than the self-denying and anti-heroic Brand from a play written 27 years earlier.
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But the unique charge of “Master Builder” comes from a grimly compelling inevitability to its towering (literally) finish that recalls Greek tragedy — or might, if a production could ever find an actress possessed of that combination of danger and desire that makes Hilda the libidinal catalyst of a play that is fiendishly hard to cast. (The last West End go-round, with Alan Bates and Victoria Hamilton, fared arguably worse, it has to be said.) Dillon was an apparent sensation in February at the Crucible Theater, Sheffield, playing the title role in Euripides’ “Iphigenia,” her first professional assignment since leaving drama school. But she appears dwarfed by Hildegard Bechtler’s bleached-out, high-walled sets — scenically, the staging is a study in arid Scandinavian chic — and comes across as a shrilly spoken backpacker who has lost her way, not the “little devil” of Ibsen’s text who connects on some weirdly pre-Freudian level with Solness’ so-called “troll” within.
Not for nothing was “Master Builder” a favorite play of Freud, who might have got off on the ceaseless phallic suggestiveness of a new translation from American scribe John Logan (“Gladiator,” “Any Given Sunday”) that seems pitched at the slower members of the audience. “You can’t have forgotten what you did next,” says Hilda rather lumberingly, goading Solness toward the memory some 10 years before of a pre-pubescent kiss. Solness, in turn, speaks of youth “hammering at my door,” while sounding as if he is the one keen to do the hammering amid a milieu of weathervanes, wreaths and towers where double entendres abound.
In his fondly remembered staging of this play for the RSC starring John Wood and a scary yet sensual Joanne Pearce, director Adrian Noble dealt a crucial final blow to Solness, via a scenic coup de theatre — not repeated here, forgivably enough — that raised the character’s delusionality to near-lunatic proportions. With this “Master Builder,” what you see remains pretty much what you get, notwithstanding Solness’ chilling sense of the reprisals, the punishment even, that surely lie in wait.
Stewart has some undeniably moving moments, speaking of himself in the third act in the third person, as if the “master builder” has become affixed to a narrative of which Solness no longer wants any part. But he and Dillon generate little frisson beyond the feeling that he, at least, might do well to consult an optician. “There’s never a glimmer of light in this home,” notes Solness at the exact moment as designer Howard Harrison pretty much irradiates the stage with light. In context, who can blame the bewilderment that hangs over Sue Johnston, in easily the night’s best perf as Solness’ eternally shamed wife, Aline? (She blames herself for the death of the couple’s twins years ago, an event that allows Hilda to be the resident child, “for a night.”) “The emptiness is dreadful,” remarks Aline, the actress’s vocal tremor tolling its own mournful cry that, in Page’s staging, resounds well after her vainglorious husband has come crashing down.