The Master Builder

Theatre Kingston production
Nov. 22-Dec. 2, 2006
Wellington Street Theatre
Reviewed by Wayne Jones

Henrik Ibsen wrote The Master Builder in 1892 when he was in his 60s, and the basic story is fairly simple. Halvard Solness is a middle-aged architect whose great successes are all behind him now, and he fears that his prominence will be usurped by Ragnar, the young son of his dying business partner. He’s having an affair with the bookkeeper—and Ragnar’s fiancée—Kaia, and in the midst of his worry about failure and madness he and his wife Aline are visited by the mysterious Hilda, who may or may not be trying to save or destroy him.

This is a play with grand Shakespearian themes, but which pays close attention to the details and characters of real human life as well. What happens in the mind of a man when he has ignored family, friends, and colleagues in his monomaniacal quest for professional superiority? Solness, a deft practitioner of deception, ends up trusting nobody and sees deception all around him. Aline wonders whether he is going mad, and this uncertainty is wonderfully exemplified by Hilda, who sometimes is just a beautiful young woman paying her architect idol a visit, and sometimes is an evil conscience whom only Solness can hear and who is driving him toward self-destruction. The play centres on various kinds of pairings which drive the action forward to its terrible conclusion. Youth and old age, madness and reason, reality and deception—these are the main ones, but Ibsen and director Craig Walker also play on other duos as well: the innocent allure of Kaia and the seductive allure of Hilda, the fear of youth and the paternal hope for the young son.

In the midst of all this thematic grandeur, though, there are exquisite details. One of the most intriguing is the lack of colour in the clothing of all the characters. Everyone is dressed in earth tones, various shades of brown and beige which reflect the primal motives which are at play in even the most domestic interactions. Only the naïve and much-abused Kaia sports a floral print, but even that is subsumed in brown. Throughout the play, the simple coat rack in one corner holds only black and brown ones. The set is equally subdued, with simple furniture (dark woods, of course) and a large representation of an architectural drawing at the back of the stage, the image fading a bit like Solness’s reputation, and complete with the ends rolled up on the left and right.

The acting is uniformly good. Matthew Gibson as Solness dominates the stage, his voice booming at times. Elena Juatco (yes, she of Canadian Idol fame) as Hilda and Sarah Bruckschwaiger as Kaia excellently portray the manipulating and the manipulated respectively. The supporting cast also perform well, especially Gloria DiFolco as Aline and Grahame Renyk as Ragnar. Overall, it’s a play well worth seeing, and a nice addition to a string of great productions at Wellington Street Theatre in the last couple of years.

Wayne Jones works in the library at Queen’s and can be reached at


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