Adapted by David Hare, Directed by Brian Richmond
I have a confession to make. For someone who professes to be a theatre critic–I did write The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy, after all–I don’t go out to see that shows very often. Maybe two or three times a year. I get squirrelly sitting down in a seat for too long. I have a distaste for sitting shoulder to shoulder. Room to stretch out is a necessity. I like the air fresh and cool, not stuffy rooms full of colognes and perfumes. But, when I heard that Michael Armstrong–the competition manager for the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition–was playing Dr. Herdal in one of my favourite plays, I simply had to go.
The Master Builder is playing from May 28 to June 9 at the Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre. The Blue Bridge operates out of the Roxy Theatre, a second-run cinema built in 1949, which it purchased and converted into a live theatre in 2013. The theatre is located in the lively Quadra Village district of Victoria, a brisk fifteen minute walk from the downtown core.
I went with CD to the 8PM show on Friday, May 31, 2019. We estimated the crowd to be 40 strong. The theatre itself probably seats just over 200. Tickets were going for $49 ($47 + $2 service fee). If 10% of the tickets were complimentary (a guesstimate), the box office would have taken in $1692.
At 44, I’m no spring chicken, but we were probably the youngest folks there, or among the youngest. One of the themes of The Master Builder is age versus youth. In the play, youth prevails. But in the audience, however, it seems age prevailed! Go age!
The crowd size was surprising. Opening weekend. Major playwright. Major play. Canadian premiere of the Hare adaptation. Great cast. Where is everyone? And what does theatre have to do to attract larger and more diverse crowds?
The set designers built a noticeable slope onto the stage, maybe 6%. This creates the feeling is that the set, which consists of wood-framed walls representing Hilde and Solness’ house, lurches towards the audience. It has the effect of adding tension to the play. The house has a front room, which can be a living room, office space, or the outdoors, depending on how the furniture is arranged. It is quite effective as a living room and an office space, but less effective as the garden. The house also has a back room, which is another office space. The backdrop is some type of sheet which makes it look like the house is built into an exposed rock face. Not sure if the intention was to make it appear as though the back room emerges from a rock face, as this would truly be a unique house!
Although I’ve read and studied The Master Builder on many occasions (it’s one of my favourite Ibsen plays), this was my first time seeing it live on stage. With one exception, and a major one, the action proceeded as my imagination had set it. The one exception was the concluding lines. I had always imagined that the final lines–“My … my … master builder”–spoken by Hilde after God strikes down Solness from the steeple top, would be spoken softly, with a sense of incredulity, with reservation and awe. But, to my surprise, Amanda Lisman spoke Hilde’s lines with maniacal intensity.
The next day, I checked the McFarlane translation of The Master Builder to see how the last scene plays out. To my surprise, my memory had failed me. The last lines were exactly as Lisman interpreted them, and not as I had imagined:
Hilde: [with a kind of quiet, bewildered triumph]. But he got right to the top. And I heard harps in the air. [Waves the shawl upwards and shouts with a wild intensity]. My . . . my . . . master builder!
This certainly changes things. It’s like I’ve been given a whole new play. In my mistaken reading, Hilde is despondent. She was expecting the Master Builder to return triumphant. His fall from the steeple was unexpected. She’s dejected and in awe that he could have failed. I’m not sure what to make of the correct reading, though. In the correct reading, Hilde is more intense, more maniacal. She has cast a spell over the Master Builder. It’s like a hand-off or a transition from age to youth. Solness had fed off the failures of Aline, Ragnar, and Knut to become the master builder. Aline had to abandon her vocation as an educator and a ‘builder of souls’. Ragnar had his vocation as the next master builder suppressed. Knut had to lose his architect business. Hilde and Solness’ children had to perish. When Solness falls off the steeple (or is struck down by God), he pays back his debt to nature for his success, his success which had come at the expense of those around him. And the tragedy of his fall will perhaps give Hilde her first stroke of luck in her budding career: the master builder had sacrificed himself for her in the same way as Aline, Ragnar, and Knut had sacrificed themselves so that Solness could become the master builder. All this is speculation. I’ll have to deliberate some more. Fascinating.
Perhaps I should go out to see plays more often? Or, perhaps not. Sometimes I like the plays as I remember reading them, the way they exist in my imagination. For the same reason, I don’t take photographs. That way, I can remember things exactly how I want–there’s nothing to refute my memory.
I usually don’t write about the theatre program. There’re so many typos in this one that it isn’t funny. The cover page has the play running May 5 – June 9. Actual run dates are May 28 – June 9. The picture of Ibsen is labeled “Samuel Beckett.” Peer Gynt is spelled “Per Gynt.” Hedda Gabler is spelled “Heda Gabler.” “Emperor and Galilean” is spelled “Emporer and Galilean.” You’ve got to be kidding me. Blue Bridge can and should do better.
Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m one of the happy few doing Melpomene’s work.