Antisocial Climbers

Ralph Fiennes is ideal for Ibsen’s Solness while James Graham evokes the sad clown Screaming Lord Sutch

Anne McElvoy

Psychosexual wot-not: Sarah Snook and Ralph Fiennes in “The Master Builder” (©Manuel Harlan)

Irritated by the assured bounciness of the young, while recalling the days when possibilities looked as wide as the Sognefjord? Then The Master Builder (at the Old Vic until March 19) is the play for you. Ibsen’s portrait of Halvard Solness is a bleak reckoning with ambition, suppressed longings and the price paid for fame. Solness is so haunted by his own youthful ruthlessness that he sidelines the son of his erstwhile rival Brovik, repeating the pattern of cruelty, while painfully aware that he cannot escape it.

Ralph Fiennes’s portrayal of the grand local anti-hero is a vision of a man at war with himself from the moment we meet him, snippily flirting with his adoring book-keeper in the presence of his passive-aggressive wife (Linda Emond) and changing his mind about his demands.

The vertiginous set by Rob Howell makes the most of the ironies of Solness’s incarceration in a grand building of his own design. We are deep in pre-Freudian psycho-sexual wot-not here, with Solness’s foolhardy desire to conquer his vertigo by climbing the steeple of his latest creation and Hilde’s pre-sexual fixation on an adored figure who will become her victim.
Sarah Snook as Hilde is a one-woman reincarnation of the Rhine maidens stomping in from the Norwegian valleys to create havoc in the chilly interiors of the childless Solness household. There’s still a good dollop of her native Australian in Snook’s forthright delivery. But she is not yet quite seasoned enough a stage presence to carry it off over the long second act and the contralto bellowing grows wearisome. As stunning as Snook is (she stars in the cult sci-fi flick Predestination as a gorgeous time traveller), the strident delivery seems so out of kilter with the period as to throw the production into an entirely different century.

Fiennes, however, has a role that suits his ability to play maudlin, self-obsessed characters and still garner empathy. When he describes his callousness towards his wife, after the death of their twin babies in a fire, it is with the awful precision of a man who can remember and observe suffering but never regret or revise his part in it.

Matthew Warchus’s direction is precise and David Hare’s liberties with the text are more than usually justified by Ibsen’s note that he felt the play would need “continually updating”. It is a ride that lurches between the mythical, the real and the subconscious, with shots of madness and melodrama. Fortunately, Fiennes keeps control of this powerful dramatic locomotive so that when the inevitable crash comes, the destruction is a jolt: all the more so because we saw it coming.

If one contemporary European dramatist sits in the tradition of the classic psychological drama, it is Florian Zeller, the French writer whose spare studies of human frailty and canny manipulation of our perceptions mkes him a worthy successor to Yasmina Reza. In Britain, Zeller has been blessed with skilful adaptations by Christopher Hampton, the silkiest master of the craft.

Like The Father, his more celebrated work, The Mother deals with mental infirmity. (The Father explored the treacherous impact of Alzheimer’s disease on memory and family bonds, The Mother unpacks mid-life depression, when empty nest syndrome becomes something altogether more oppressive and destructive.)
At London’s Tricycle until March 12, in a production first seen last year in Bath, Gina McKee is perfectly cast in the role of Anne, the elegant, glacial “helicopter mother” waiting anxiously on a call from her beloved son Nicholas (William Postlethwaite) while suspecting that her derided husband (Richard Clothier) is about to conduct an affair.

The Mother precedes The Father by four years and it’s hard not to watch it as something of a dramatic dry run. Zeller uses the same technique of re-running a scene with a different emphasis or a change in actors’ delivery. So when we are confronted with Anne’s bitter antipathy to her son’s siren girlfriend, we might conclude that she has a point about the visitor flaunting her body, just before we reconsider whether the scene could just as well be a Valium-addled projection in Anne’s mind or even the key to more murderous intent.

McKee is always best playing sad parts — not necessarily fully-blown tragedy, but  evoking the acidity of deep disappointment and the fragility of the human heart. Midlife women with the blues get a raw deal on stage, sent up in comedy or, like poor Mrs Solness, portrayed as a drain on the lives of those around them. McKee, veering between coquettishness and hostile rage, captures the hard edge of depression, but without foregoing the damaged dignity of Anne’s character.

A dose of irreverent political knockabout feels like a necessary tonic. But Monster Raving Loony, James Graham’s madcap account of the life of the late Screaming Lord Sutch also has an undertow of the depression suffered by the joker in the big hat.

A glorious distraction from the swingometer during election counts, Sutch contested elections from his first outing in 1963, after the resignation of John Profumo, to the Blair landslide of 1997. Even at this distance, it’s hard not to smile at the the wild impishness of a “candidate” who once stood alongside Margaret Thatcher on the platform in Finchley, miming the opening of her head with a tin-opener.

Graham’s play had its first outing at the Theatre Royal, Plymouth, where the audience was enjoined to join in with the zany party atmosphere (hard to conjure up on a wet Wednesday in Plymouth). It’s a game attempt to conjure up the Sutchian world: a mixture of free-wheeling 1960s-spawned challenge to the Establishment and vaguely-conceived political protest.

I’d say this is Graham — our most prolific political dramatist, who shone with his study of the 1970s, This House — taking a break from dramatising the slog of democracy. Structurally, the plot is a series of loosely connected vignettes, featuring characters ranging from Benny Hill and George Formby to re-creations of Blackadder and ’Allo ’Allo.

Sutch himself remains opaque and the narrative is a bit too heavy-handed, with the recurrent theme of the depressed comic. Sutch took his own life in 1999.

Graham would like us to conclude that the Willy Wonka of election nights can conveys some message about the need for democracies to retain vitality and listen to outsiders. But it’s not much clearer at the end whether Sutch was a cipher for alternative ideas or simply a showman with a flair for the political moment. It hardly matters. He remains fixed in the mental picture of our political process long after his demise — the gremlin in the machine.

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