Entertainment & Arts

Ralph Fiennes rated 'brilliant' as The Master Builder

Ralph Fiennes in The Master Builder Image copyright Manuel Harlan
Image caption Ralph Fiennes plays the guilt and anxiety-ridden skilled architect Halvard Solness

Ralph Fiennes has premiered his new play The Master Builder in London's West End to rave reviews.

The Ibsen play opened at the Old Vic on Wednesday in front of a star audience including Bill Nighy and Rosamund Pike.

The Guardian's Michael Billington said Fiennes was "at the height of his powers", while The Stage said he was "brilliantly contradictory".

Fiennes stars as skilled architect Halvard Solness, plagued by anxiety over his future and younger talent.

The Old Vic play, adapted by David Hare, co-stars Australian actress Sarah Snook as the young woman Hilde Wangel who turns Solness's life upside down.

Arriving on his doorstep, Wangel claims to have met Solness 10 years earlier and that he promised her they would be reunited and make a life together.

Ibsen's 1892 play is described as a "psychologically complex piece of writing, heavy with symbolism" by Natasha Tripney in the Stage.

Although "the production loses momentum a little in its last third", according to Tripney, she is full of praise for Fiennes and Snook alike.

"Fiennes is brilliantly contradictory as Solness, charismatic and commanding but also prickly and craven," she says. Meanwhile "Snook is possibly even better. Hers is a stage-owning performance," adds the critic.

Image copyright Manuel Harlan
Image caption Sarah Snook and Ralph Fiennes have an onstage chemistry that 'flames like fired brandy', according to the Daily Mail's Quentin Letts

Billington had "mixed feelings" about Snook but says Fiennes gives a "superb performance".

The actor's Solness "becomes a tragic figure haunted by hubris" and emerging from the Old Vic his overall verdict was "Ibsen's play about an architect jealous of rivals and haunted by guilt presents a searing self-portrait for a magnetic actor".

Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail confesses The Master Builder is one of his least-liked plays but that "the Snook-Fiennes chemistry... flames like fired brandy" in the Old Vic production.

"Mr Fiennes throws himself in to the part. Even when Ibsen makes little sense - often - it is possible to admire the Fiennes stage technique. And in Miss Snook he finds his perfect doubles partner. Baffling Ibsen has been at least partly humanised," concludes Letts.

The Master Builder is considered the most autobiographical of Ibsen's works. It's thought to have been partly inspired by his infatuation with a girl he met on holiday in the Tyrol.

And speaking after Wednesday's show, Fiennes told the BBC News website's Tim Masters how he took a trip to Norway to prepare for the complex role of the contradictory Solness.

There he found the playwright's study in Oslo had been kept exactly as it was when the playwright died in 1906.

"You can't even take a photograph of it. You see it through two glass panels," says the actor.

"It's like you're looking into this space that's been held in time. You can wander through the rest of the apartment, which is very middle class and ordered. He's not Bohemian. I got the sense of someone very controlled and disciplined."

Fiennes says he was drawn to the play's "complex psychology". His character Solness is a heady mix of contradictions, swinging from guilt-laden to full of joy and affection.

"I think it's about an inner rebirth," says Fiennes.

"I'm not an expert, but it's full of a Jungian sense of trying to inhabit your real self and being released from traumas of obligation and duty and guilt and what society expects of you... the cliche is that it's a midlife crisis."

The Master Builder is at the Old Vic, London, until 19 March.

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