A visit to Chichester’s Minerva Theatre to watch an excellent production of Ibsen’s ‘The Master Builder’.
Master Builder Solness is a narcissist who in the end is outmanoeuvred by the only other character in the world capable of weaving a comparable web of manipulative deceit: another narcissist.
Hilde - played with acerbic energy by Naomi Frederick - is the burgeoning of youth come to displace the older Master Builder Solness; a man obsessed and quite sick with the unending game of self-love and domination. Now, the only effective narcissist is a person equipped to live without ever bowing to the nagging, imploring criticisms of ethical life. All other people – at least the ones that try to avoid using their fellows - are fools, instruments or ‘creatures’ who are either of use or not.
But, there is no point in a narcissist who has ceased suppressing his or her guilt. Such a surrender is at the root of the Master Builder’s demise.
Perhaps this is all a little unfair on the character of Solness. The Master Builder is a play said to be rich in symbolism, and the role of Solness, in keeping with the Master Builder’s own difficult character, is demanding. Michael Pennington, a well respected actor with a distinguished portfolio which includes the RSC, adds to the complexity of Solness’s character in conveying his sophisticated and vulnerable sides. But as ever with this type of maladjusted character, Solness’s vulnerability is not as it seems. His fear and vulnerability is of a different nature to that of the 'well-adjusted' member of civic society.
No, his is a vulnerability born of a lifetime spent repressing guilt: the guilt of building a reputation on the ashes of his wife’s inheritance; the guilt of serial philandery; the guilt of oppressing the people around him. It is the absence of this guilt, the type of guilt that is said to eat away inside, that separates the narcissist from the fully reflective member of the human race. Once the Master Builder can no longer resist this guilt, once he succumbs to it, he becomes human. But it is a phryyic triumph, with the price of now being prey to the narcissistic spirits who were once his bedfellows. It is ultimately this that the narcissist fears, the fear that the golden rule, the rule which enjoins us to treat others as we would have them treat ourselves, that rule which the narcissist is uniquely gifted to exploit, can be turned upon its head.
It is not long before Hilde’s well honed sense for the vulnerable deploys itself – by way of quite subtle manipulation; of Holness’s wife Aline; his underlings; and of the Master Builder himself…
It was the first time I’d seen a play by Ibsen, so I am unsure whether it is to his, or to David Edgar’s, skill in adapting the tale that amidst the play’s symbolic references to guilt, betrayal and domination, the audience is not forced to take a moral stance. For me it seemed to be a reconstruction of the subtle and, often seemingly inoffensive, interplay of domination and manipulation that can occur in real life.
It ends the only way it can – no twist - to the sound of the screaming, hysterical narcissism of Hilde now become master of the Master Builder himself.
- The Master Builder, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, until 9 October.