Five years ago, actor Stephen Dillane and U.S. director Travis Preston co-created a hit one-man “Macbeth” at this address. But, with their modern-dress production of Ibsen’s 1892 play “The Master Builder,” lightning refuses to strike twice. Preston steers Dillane and hot Brit film property Gemma Arterton into all sorts of improbable shapes, but his mannered style is in search of a logic to call its own. And it sheds no light on Ibsen’s introspective drama, laden with symbolism and self-pity, which operates as a caution against old men falling for nubile young women, and not much else.
Some speculate that “The Master Builder” is a self-portrait, illustrative of the 64-year-old writer’s infatuation with the 18-year-old Emilie Bardach. A moonstruck state of mind may explain, if not excuse, the play’s feverish note of self-absorption, as our hero, Halvard Solness (Dillane), jaws on and on about how threatened he is by an insurgent younger generation, and how frustrated he is by his sterile marriage. “I am chained to a corpse,” he howls to young visitor Hilde Wangel (Arterton), here to claim the kingdom he playfully promised her when she was a little girl.
As Hilde, Arterton bounces with life, in contrast to Solness’ wife, Aline (Anastasia Hille), dressed in black, perpetually mourning her dead twins. But for all Arterton’s sexy vitality, there’s no spark between her and Dillane’s Halvard. The pair converse in looping cadences, scrabble on all fours across the soil floor of Vicki Mortimer’s bare set, and strike awkward postures. At one point, Arterton does a squat-thrust, while Dillane delivers one speech tilting from the waist and with his left hand pocketed, as if he needs to relieve himself. This successfully distances the production from psychological realism, but puts nothing convincing in its place. We see weird; we feel little.
And we don’t care about Dillane’s studied, self-conscious Solness. The idea may be, as with his Macbeth, to imply that the whole drama is playing out in Solness’s mind. But the effect is to bleed the play’s other characters of life, while Solness’ wallowing self-indulgence, replete with much superstitious blather about trolls and demons, hogs the stage. There are scraps for one’s interest to feed on in the performances of Hille as the dutiful Aline and Emma Hamilton as Solness’ bookkeeper Kaja. But elsewhere, it’s all style and no interesting substance.