Ralph Fiennes likes a challenge. He picks his parts like a pole-vaulter pushing himself higher. Last year, it was Jack Tanner in the moral maze of Shaw’s “Man and Superman,” a four-hour tongue twister in human form. Now, it’s the title character of Ibsen’s “The Master Builder,” Halvard Solness — a tangle of ambition, paranoia and buried guilt. It’s a commanding performance, but not a revealing one, and David Hare’s light-touch adaptation offers little steer for navigating the mix of myth, symbolism and psychology that’s typical of late Ibsen.
Solness is Ibsen’s Icarus. A great architect (self-taught, he prefers “master builder”), he dreads being usurped by his young assistant Ragnar (Martin Hutson), son to the man he himself supplanted years earlier. Gradually, his thoughts turn to legacy: a grand steeple, high enough to make a mark on the world.
Hare makes clear that Halvard’s success is rooted in circumstance. His wife Aline (Linda Emond) lost twin sons in infancy, both poisoned by her breast milk, following a huge fire at home. Not only did the fire clear land for the building that made Halvard’s name, their childlessness — and Hare goes so far as to declare the master builder impotent — allowed his career to flourish. However, with no one to transfer ambition onto, buildings are all Halvard can leave behind.
Fiennes doesn’t reveal a role; he takes his shirt off and wrestles with it. He’ll push a part to its extremes, and his Halvard can ricochet with inspiration or slow to a still despair, but you feel you’re watching postures instead of a person. It’s hard to see the character for all the acting. Every sentence is crisp, like speech deep-fried, and every action’s so definite. Even vulnerability’s played with attack.
He starts clenched, grudgingly offering a glass of water to an old dying man, but frazzles as the play goes on. The trigger for Halvard’s break-down is the presence of Hilde Wangel (Sarah Snook) — a girl half his age, infatuated ever since he kissed her, inappropriately, as a child. Snook strides onstage, skirt hitched up at the knee, a confusion of sex, youth and nature in one. She can be every bit as stilted as Fiennes.
Rob Howell’s set gives the play shape. A wooden disc overhead tilts for each act: ascent first, then descent, and, finally, a crash landing. Around the edges, a thicket of charred timber encloses the action. Lit by Hugh Vanstone, it shifts from dense pine forest to flaming inferno, both manifestations of Halvard’s headspace. Hilde might be the same. Halvard lays himself open with her, babbling hidden grief and guilt. She drives him on, a devil on his shoulder. At one stage, Snook hops onto a table like a visitation. Matthew Warchus sometimes overplays the expressionism — a cello underscores recollections of grief, for instance — but he catches the feverish tone of the play as the master builder starts to fray.