Review: (the fall of) The Master Builder

Zinnie Harris’ reworking of the Ibsen classic The Master Builder is very much a play of two halves. One works, the other doesn’t.

It has to be said that Ibsen’s original is unpromising material. First, there’s the mystery of what it’s about. Successful architect Halvard Solness is on the brink of career triumph when much younger blast-from-the-past Hilde Wangel rocks up.

Everything then goes fatally pear-shaped, but for no convincing reason. It’s supposed to be a ‘psychological’ play but Ibsen’s grasp of psychology was – not unreasonably for 1893 – somewhat imperfect.

“Reece Dinsdale is excellent”

Then there’s the implausible ending. Holness falls to his death from a tower he’s just built, in a mishap so contrived it should be grounds for a refund. (Early audiences panned the play – a warning sign posterity should perhaps have taken more seriously.)

Can Zinnie Harris fix it? No she can’t.

The first act is good, fast, easy to follow, funny and (be advised) sweary. It’s a stretch to believe that a major architectural practice in 2017 comprises only four people, but let that pass. It does an efficient job of setting up the characters, the mood and the play’s pivotal event – the disruptive arrival of Hilde (Katherine Rose Morley).

The second act is a different animal entirely. It plunges almost immediately into a witch-hunt, as allegations emerge that Holness has a history of sexually molesting underage girls. The evidence goes unexamined but the condemnation is immediate and merciless.

Ibsen blurred the line between real and supernatural, so in the Harris version are these actual or imagined chickens coming home to roost? Should we side with a bewildered, panicked Holness or with former friends and associates who at the drop of a hat chorus ‘Kiddy fiddler!’ and demand that he jump to his death?

I for one didn’t know and quickly didn’t care. The abrupt and clumsy transition to flat-out ugly was disengaging and undid all the play’s earlier good work. It was overwrought, emotionally manipulative and almost absurd in its simplistic gallop to the big finish, the ‘fall’.

Worse, perhaps, is that it presumed to draw from the well of Jimmy Savile, Rolf Harris, Rotherham and the rest but came up with a near-empty bucket. If you’re going to address child sexual exploitation in drama, tackle it head on. Don’t dress it up as Ibsen.

Undeniably, Reece Dinsdale is excellent as Holness and well worth seeing. He’s convincing, funny and likeable as a dynamic and shrewd (rather than ruthless) boss starting to feel his age and his limitations. He deserves better than a second act that gives him little to do except twist and turn in a tornado of vilification.

Afterwards, mulling over what I’d seen, one expression kept recurring: ‘cut and shut’, motor trade jargon for a dodgy vehicle assembled from the front and rear halves of two write-offs. It might seem an unkind verdict but it fits the bill here.

The fall of) The Master Builder runs at West Yorkshire Playhouse until Saturday 21 October 2017. Tickets £13.50 – £31.00 + online booking fee. Concessions available.


This review was written by Graham Barker as part of our South Leeds Goes To The Playhouse project where readers receive free tickets in return for a review article.


2 Replies to “Review: (the fall of) The Master Builder”

  1. I saw this on Wednesday and make no mistake, this is an excellent reworking of the Ibsen, dated, classic. The first and second halves do contrast just as we start to see Solness for what he is and we start to see his life spiral out of control.
    Like the reviewer I liked the first half – it was jolly, funny and easy to watch. The second half is hard and difficult because its subject is hard and difficult – expecting more of the same given the subject matter is naive. Dinsdale manages the transition from tentative rogue to monster so very well and THAT is the point of the play.

    The reviewer didn’t like the play, but really this is a poor review which misunderstands the original and didn’t appear to make any attempt to engage with the actual production. Perhaps Bob The Builder, quoted in the review, would be easier and less challenging for him to follow?

    WYP keep this up – a quality Northern production.

    1. Robert is entitled to his view, but in writing of Holness’ ‘transition from tentative rogue to monster’ he perhaps unwittingly reinforces my main criticism of the play.

      First point: as a father of three I don’t wish to belittle the sexual abuse of children, but against the appalling benchmarks that have been set in recent years, Holness’ alleged misdemeanours don’t make him a monster.

      Second point: we are shown no process of law that finds him guilty. It may be boring to do that on stage perhaps, but it’s rather important in real life.

      In moral terms it’s a trite and sloppy play. I really don’t know what Zinnie Harris was trying to say, but feel that she did a disservice to Ibsen, to victims of child sex abuse and to notions of justice.

      As for misunderstanding the original, I did do it for A Level, albeit many years ago, so am not entirely without a glimmer or two.

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