Ibsen's 'Master Builder' won't be enjoyed by Israelis used to being coddled. But the story of the church builder raises issues of aging and fantasies of grandeur
A few minutes before the curtain lifted for the start of the play "The Master Builder," a Habima-Cameri joint production, the administrative director of the Cameri Theater, who was standing next to me in the last row of the theater told me "this is the kind of play you like" with the stress on the "you."
She was right, of course, because I generally like good plays, but also, and this is a subtext I attribute to her, because it is quite clear why Henrik Ibsen's play would not win plaudits from the general audience of repertory theater in Israel.
Ibsen, one of the forefathers of theater, was considered "realist" (i.e., examined reality ) in his day, even though this is the mother of all mislabels.
In total contrast to reality, which we already know is coincidental and random (and I assume that in Ibsen's day there were many people who understood this ), Ibsen's dramatic mechanisms are so well-planned that it is hard to shift a word without threatening the entire structure.
In a certain sense, Ibsen is the father of the television sitcoms and telenovellas.
Imagine a story about a successful and well-to-do professional, a patriarch at an older age (and what age exactly is a good question that I will get back to ), who is haunted by a sense of worthlessness and guilt. There are a few skeletons in his closet which cruelly crush every step by his younger colleagues, because he fears they will push him out.
Add to this a miserable family life with a tragedy in its past involving the loss of children, and to top it off, mix in a sexy young woman who had a relationship with the hero, Halvard Solness, in the past (and what kind of relationship is another story ) and now suddenly shows up, alluring, provocative and dangerous all in one.
That is the plot of "The Master Builder" and the trouble is that the Israeli audience, on television and also at the theater, has gotten used to receiving it diluted, in many episodes, and usually in the form of people from their own world and era: Americans and not Norwegians, or preferably Israelis, with the whole Israeli symbolic-social-linguistic layer.
That is why I assume Israelis will find it difficult to handle an hour an forty minutes, with no intermission, of characters who are not of this time and from this place.
But instead of speculating on what the Israeli audience likes and why, it is better to consider the play, the production and the first interesting question I posed, the question of the age of the master builder.
Ibsen wrote the play over 110 years ago, when he himself was over 60, in those days considered advanced old age. We know that there are autobiographical elements in the play and that at that time he had relationships with several much younger women.
The play does not mention how old Solness is, but we must assume that he has charm and virility that captivate women, primarily young women (the assistant in his office, Kaia, voluntarily functions as a maid to the master, even if for appearance's sake she is to marry the draftsman working there ). Just over 10 years earlier he became a father, while he was still a young man making his way up the ladder of church building, and then as now, he is able to climb the tall scaffolding around the church steeple.
The family doctor (Alex Ansky in an episodic role, inflated with self-importance ) makes it clear to the audience that Solness has a large sexual appetite even if he himself denies the accusations.
On the other hand, our perceptions of age and lifespan have changed considerably since the play was written: today 60 (and presumably Solness was younger than that ) is not considered old; people at this age feel as if they are at the peak of their strength. However, the pressure from the young to push aside the age group over them intensifies. There are fields (the media, high-tech ) where 40-year-olds are considered elderly.
This is now Solness's inner dilemma: He feels at the height of his abilities, a combination of skill and experience. He also feels that he earned his successes not just because of his abilities, but also because his hidden thoughts, "bad" thoughts in his eyes, materialize without his (usually ) having to be the bad guy.
Therefore he clings to his position with desperate cruelty, willing to crush even those who do not really threaten him. This is a side of the play that people of a certain age and status (I, for example ) identify strongly with.
What happened with Hilda?
This brings me to the second question, with regard to which there has also been a change since the play was written: the young Hilda, just reaching independence (around age 20 ), comes and recalls that 10 years ago, at the dedication of a church in her village, Solness both hugged and kissed her, and also promised to come in another 10 years and take her and build her a kingdom and castles in the sky.
If in Ibsen's time, the pedophilic aspect of sexual exploitation is only hinted at, these days it is very easy to assume that Uncle Solness did not just hug the girl Hilda in her white dress and tell her fairy tales, but also did a few other things that not coincidentally he does not want to recollect.
Add to this the fact that director Hanan Snir did not stick to the order of events. The names did remain Norwegian, but the clothes, behavior and set are contemporary, though not local, thankfully.
Snir also tends to radicalize moments and relationships: when the aging architect that Solness pushed aside opens the play with "I can't" (the veteran and reliable Yosef Carmon ), he pulls out a pistol from the drawer and cocks it.
His son and daughter-in-law to be (Gil Weinberg and Tamar Keinan ), barely manage to restrain him; she stays to pour water over the legs of the admired architect who dozes wearing an eye mask.
The pistol that appears on stage in the first scene does not fire in the third scene (an image attributed to Chekhov ), who knew how to learn from Ibsen but also to mock him (because what is "The Seagull" if not a kind of parody of "The Wild Duck" ).
Fortunately, there are also no church towers on the stage as phallic symbols. Instead Snir and the set designer, Roni Toren, found an equally brilliant stage image: Habima workers as construction workers, in work overalls and hardhats, who dismantle the sets between acts, including lifting the floor, in tones of glossy-matte-gray from under the characters between the second and third act.
The third act is a large garden of black earth in which Aline (in the play I saw, Gila Almagor as Solness' grieving wife; Sandra Sadeh shares the role with her, unlike many of my colleagues I didn't see her performance ) and young Hilda have just planted.
This is the solid ground to be struck after Solness's inevitable fall from the castles in the sky he promises and wants to build, even if he knows the building's foundations are rotten.
Unlike Snir's previous Ibsen production, the video (Yoav Cohen ) and the music (Eldad Lidor ) serve to complement the atmosphere and not as almost realist hints, as in "Little Eyolf," (although I will note that I am starting to long for a theater production without shiny video art and there are increasingly fewer of these ).
One of the key points of the play is the casting of Hila Feldman in the role of Hilda: her extroverted behavior and the clothes prepared for her (in the second act she wears a provocative men's shirt ) make it clear that she is not just a young woman lost in her dreams who wants to realize a fairy tale-childish promise made to her by an elderly uncle when she was little.
From the first moment it is clear that this is a woman who is aware of the power of her sexuality, and in contrast to Ragnar the draftsman and Kaia, knows how to use it to achieve her objectives.
There is also in the personality of Hilda-Hila the ability to win over the trust of Aline-Almagor, precisely because of this combination of a girl-woman, daughter-friend or daughter-lover.
The nice thing about Feldman's performance is that she is able to do this, primarily to Solness, without losing the veneer of childlike innocence and fairy tale charm and dream magic. Such an approach to the character tugs precisely at Solness's frayed strings; his own uncertainty about what is happening to him and his surroundings is his own doing or the product of his imagination.
And now I come to Oded Teomi, who shapes Solness. Teomi, 74, who will soon receive a lifetime achievement award, recently said in an interview that he would like to play the role of King Lear and apparently will no longer get the chance.
But he already has acted the top roles of the stage for an actor of his age and standing: Sir in Ronald Harwood's "The Dresser," and now Solness in "The Master Builder."
On paper, and also to a certain extent in the cumulative memory of the roles he has acted in recent years (Sir, as mentioned and the father in "The Celebration," Furtwangler in "Taking Sides" and Nils Bohr in "Copenhagen", all as the elder statesman ), he is too old for this role, for the reasons I noted above.
On the other hand, the critic has to rely on what he sees and feels: the person who was the undisputed "jeune premiere" of Israeli theater still looks and sounds as if he is at the height of his strength.
Add to this some element of almost complete childhood innocence that he has the ability to convey, something reliable in a basic way, primarily when he talks about self-doubt, and his flirtation with worlds beyond, but not the Jewish religion (instead he talk about "above and beyond" ), and there is something winning about his challenge to God from the heights of the church tower in this play.
I can believe in the genuine, distorted, suicidal relationship between Hilda-Hila and Teomi-Solness. That is why this was indeed a play that I liked. But I realize, just like Solness, that this is not the way the world, the theater and the audience are heading.
So I will console myself by jumping off imaginary church towers to the solid ground of Israeli theater where people enjoy other things.