It’s an old story. A celebrated older man is inspired by the adoration of a much younger girl. She helps him revive his dreams and see himself as heroic. From the lurid seduction of one’s own stepdaughter that led to a marriage with a “paternal feeling” and a broken family of the Soon Yi – Woody Allen coupling to the ridiculous sofa jumping enthusiasm of a 40-something man who impregnates a girl who had his poster in her bedroom just a few years ago of the Tom-Kat phenomena, these are relationships where the girl-woman has the power of youth which evens out the power and prestige of the man. To a man her own age, she’s an equal and he’s usually less financially stable.
Are these relationships good? Those that believe wedded bliss depends upon the happiness or consent of both sets of parents probably don’t think so. When divorce was less likely, the view was even dimmer. Henrik Ibsen mixed mythology with social commentary in 1892 “The Master Builder,” currently playing in repertoire at Glendale’s A Noise Within. The production keeps the setting in the past and strongly builds an enthralling, psychologically deep though claustrophobic world.
The master builder, Halvard Solness (Geoff Elliott), lives in fear—fear of change, fear of new, youthful ideas and fear of becoming outdated and unnecessary. So he plays god—manipulating his bookkeeper, Kaja (Rona Benson), into keeping her fiancé who works as his draftsman, Ragnar (Stephen Rockwell), underneath his watchful gaze. Even as Ragnar’s father, Knut Brovik (Len Lesser), is dying, pleading with Solness to give his boy a chance to fly on his own as an architect, Solness persists in stripping Ragnar of self-confidence. His wife, Aline (Jill Hill), remains fully aware of Kaja’s intense devotion but she is driven by what is her duty. Into this claustrophobic human tangle, a young girl, Hilda (Julia Watt), enters, remembering Solness as he was a decade ago—much braver and much more flamboyant than the man who now exists. The master builder has a psychological harem, but he also has a guilt-gilded sense of duty that binds him to his tolerant and proper wife.
For the Scandinavian audiences, the story of the master builder was a familiar part of their folklore. A king wants to build a spectacular church, but he wishes to do so without burdening his people with heavy taxes. A troll offers to complete the task in an unreasonable time if the king will give him the sun and the moon. Yet if the king learns the troll’s name, the king released from his debt. Sometimes, the tale requires that the man give up his young son. As it becomes apparent that the troll will make the deadline, the king worries and wandering through the forest, he hears something. When the troll comes to claim his terrible price, the man reveals the troll’s name. Startled, the troll falls down.
There are many variations of this tale and in modern times, Ibsen’s became one of them. The character of Hilda is based upon a young girl that Ibsen met when he was 61 and she was only 17. She was one of many women that Ibsen corresponded with to study for his writing.
Solness, as the master builder, is doomed. His success required a great sacrifice that killed his marital happiness. Hilda, who rushes forth with no change of clothes and hardly a care for parental consent, is both temptress and inspiration. Solness doesn’t jump on couches, but he jump over the hurdle of fear—allowing Ragnar to submit his drawings. Yet this act of charity comes too late—Knut cannot appreciate the gesture and Kaja has confessed to Ragmar her devotion to Solness. Goaded on by Hilda, Solness is inspired to do one final act, one that both Ragnar and Aline know will prove fatal and yet, he does it for the sake of Hilda, who neither sees his weaknesses or his strengths, only her fantasy of a man who would build her a castle in the sky.
Elliott as Solness is not a monster, but a once ambitious man crushed by guilt and fear. As a leader of men, his anxieties make him destructive and scheming—he does not lead for the greater good but to protect himself from his fears. Hill, dressed in black as if in eternal mourning, gives Aline a stiffness of a person whose life is not ruled by love, but by responsibility and memories. Watt’s Hilda has both the girlish gushiness and a slightly off-kilter sense of life—you sense she isn’t emotionally stable.
While this subject matter of men in mid-life crises driven to folly by younger women remains relevant and strikes a chord of recognition, this classic tale hasn’t been made into a Hollywood movie and neither has Ibsen’s 1879 “A Doll’s House.” If you want to see, you’ll have to see it on stage. A Noise Within’s production of Rolf Fjelde’s translation is seamless under the direction of Elliott and Julia Roderiguez-Elliot. Ibsen was critical of society on many levels, including society’s treatment of women, making this play much more intelligent than so many Hollywood movies with older leading men and 20-something ingénues.
“The Master Builder,” A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale. Ends Dec. 11. www.AnoiseWithin.org.