Review – The Master Builder, Almeida Theatre

There’s only two explanations for what was going on at the Almeida on Saturday:

1) Ibsen’s play The Master Builder is unrewarding, incoherent and pretentious

2) The cast were settling a bet about who could act the most weird and mental

It’s inexplicable that anyone (let alone the usually reliable Almeida) would decide to stage this pointless mess of a play, let alone throw away such a superb cast on it.

The plot is all about an architect (aka The Master Builder, Stephen Dillane) who is basically trying to maintain his business through incredibly convoluted means, including burning down his own house and seducing his apprentice’s fiancé. He also believes that he can make things happen just by thinking them. Yep, pretty looney. But you haven’t heard anything yet.

His wife (Anastasia Hille) spends her whole time mooning about looking unwell, watering the stage and going on about duty. Clearly a psycho.

The fiancés (Emma Hamilton and John Light) are comparatively sane, although he does seem to have been told by the director to “dial it up to 11” in the acting department. At one point he says something mundane like “Hello” and delivers it like Henry V storming the breach at Harfleur.

But back to the subject in hand: which is crazy people.

Gemma Arterton. Gemma Arterton. She’s very good: she’s willowy, moves wonderfully and is utterly arresting in her performance. But I’ll tell you what, her character isn’t half bonkers. It’s impossible to understand or relate to a single word of what she says or thing she does throughout the whole 105 minutes. Perhaps the point? Maybe. But it does make it very frustrating after a while to have a central character behaving completely bizarrely, consistent only in her strangeness.

The staging is, well, minimalist. We get some gravel, two chairs, a lectern and, at one point, a jug of water. Apart from that it’s Austerity Norway.

As we were leaving (well, actually pretending to leave – we were mostly gawking up at a heated disagreement brewing in the circle) an elderly woman next to us asked us if we had enjoyed it. Given I’d just leaned across to Mrs S and whispered, perhaps not as sotte voce as I might have, “That was such a pile of balls”, we found it difficult to lie: “Um, well, not really. It just didn’t seem to make much sense.”

“Oh well,” she said, in the tone adopted by pensioners when humouring the ignorance of youth.”You must read the text. You really must read the text. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.”

Perhaps. Perhaps if I did read the text all the arm waving and shouting and mentalness would reveal an inner coherence and meaning of real power.

Perhaps Ibsen (I didn’t make much of the sodding Doll’s House either for the record) is just beyond my intellect. PerhapsThe Master Builder is a superb play and this production a seminal one of it.

But for my money: too many crazy people.