Sunday, February 12, 2012

Sheer Tantrum, ‘The Master Builder’: Once Upon a Time There Was a Crack in a Chimney

The New Theatre, Dublin
Feb 6-18

My review of Sheer Tantrum’s production of The Master Builder by Henrik Ibsen coming up just as soon as I hang a wreath on a weathervane ...

In the playography of Henrik Ibsen, The Master Builder comes near the end – at a point where his writing has subverted classical representation, buckling at the symbolist seams as in the case of Peer Gynt, while also receiving a definite dose of realism with the likes of A Doll’s House. This play, sharing the symbolist energies of Peer Gynt, grounds itself in more realist territory, though lacks the singular thematic slam of A Doll’s House. When the great architect Halvard Solness climbs the tower at the play’s conclusion, a director can place what happens next within the narrative syntax of “happily ever after” or “they all wept”. For Sheer Tantrum’s production Vincent O’Reilly doesn’t send the master builder to his castle in the air.

Solness seems to possess a natural sense of luck, for the sight which he desires most – his own greatness – tends to manifest before his eyes, thanks mainly to a series of fortunate coincidences. Such is not the case for the women in his life. His book-keeper Ms. Fosli would rather impair her ability to see clearly, removing her glasses as if a blemish to her appearance. His wife Aline catches their gestures towards each other and it is enough for her to paint a picture, one she doesn’t wish to see but yet can’t remove her eyes from. Solnesss may have the superior view but he’d have to share it before long, for when he responded to a knock on the door he didn’t expect to walk into a woman’s long awaited and desired picture: her reunion with her Master Builder.

Like last November’s The Applicant, the performance space is bare, reliant on the actors to clue us in on their surroundings. Colm Ivors throws an occasional square of light onto the stage, suggesting scenic change. The performers are in a hurry though, and lines are regularly mowed over. O’Reilly pre-starts the play with a tableau of the cast repeating individual gestures, possibly intended as a reference point to significant actions that occur later. If these gestures correspond with later moments, these later moments receive no punctuation or lull for the audience to register that continuity – another indicator that the production needs to slow down.

Lauren O’Toole’s foreword in the play’s programme discusses the character of Hilde, who, from everything down to her arrival, history, and infatuation with Solness, sticks out as a non-realist figure. She’s reduced to this notion here, and I would like to see O’Reilly and Jane Myers not play all their cards on the character’s childlike mannerisms but try and explore the romanticist complexities that have such a strong influence over her life. Melissa Nolan also never seems to get under the surface of her role, wearing a severe Beckettian expression throughout but never accessing Aline’s immense grief.  

The delightful turn in the evening comes from Patrick O’Donnell, who expertly crafts his architect into a form very human, exposing the flaws in Solness’s design while continuing to build his egotistical path to success. O’Donnell covers a lot of emotional bases as Solness comes under the mysterious power that Hilde holds over him, and ultimately manages to turn a dislikeable character into a sympathetic one. The production is further complimented by charming performances by Duncan Lacroix and Áine Lane.

O’Reilly clearly wishes to abandon theatrical realism, and one can see what would draw his company to The Master Builder. He’s still searching for his stage vocabulary though. It will be interesting to see, if with continued exploration of physicality, lighting and sound, what tantrum the company will throw next.

What did everybody else think?

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