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INTERVIEW: Crafting a New Take on Ibsen’s Master Builder

There are four plays by Danish playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) that are commonly produced in the United States today. Which one you know (or know of) is likely a function of your interest. Feminists favor A Doll’s House. Pianists and orchestral musicians favor Peer Gynt, for which Edvard Grieg wrote incidental music preserved in two orchestral suites and short pieces for the piano like “In the Hall of the Mountain King“. Psychoanalysts and censors tend to favor Hedda Gabler. If you’re a fan of musicals, however, The Master Builder is your play: after all, the play’s climax opens Act I, Scene 2 of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Aspects of Love, and references to it are sprinkled throughout.

On Friday, April 14, Theatre Novi Most opens a new adaptation of The Master Builder at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis. The play’s story follows Halvard Solness, a master builder (something of a combination between chief mason and chief architect) near the end of his career. A young woman from his past suddenly reappears in his life, just as his architectural business threatens to crumble. Since he is already married, drama ensues when the young woman moves into his house.

The London premiere of The Master Builder took local critics and audiences by surprise, with the play’s perceived merits and demerits vigorously discussed in society and the press. Many critics weren’t entirely sure what to make of it; over time, however, The Master Builder has become to be recognized as one of Ibsen’s best and most enduring plays. Basil Considine spoke with Vladimir Rovinsky and Jared Zeigler of Theatre Novi Most about this new version and production of the play.

There are a fair number of English language translations of The Master Builder, including two scholarly translations from Oxford University Press. What led you to create your own translation of Ibsen’s text, as opposed to using, say, James McFarlane’s 1966 version? Since translation and adaptation are an imperfect art with many potential foci, what points or elements have you chosen to emphasize in your translation?

Vladimir Rovinsky: It is fair to say that what I did, with a great help from the cast, is rather an adaptation of The Master Builder and not a new translation of it per se. Although the cast and I have done a lot of rewriting, it was done mostly on our feet, during a process of trial and error.

We read quite a few different translations and none of them struck us as “the one”. Our goal wasn’t creating a new literary version of the play, but rather a dynamic stage performance rooted in the sensibilities, thoughts, and realities of our times. Creating our own version of the text gave us a great freedom to open it up and take a constructivist approach, rather than viewing a single translation as the Bible. (I’m a great admirer of the legendary Russian director Vsevolod Meyerhold’s approaches to deconstructing text in order to enrich the effectiveness of production.)

Alex Barreto Hathaway as the Troll.

I dare to say that our version of the script is more economical, dynamic, and contemporary [than other versions]. We didn’t simply rewrite the text using modern slang, but tried to allow Ibsen’s poetry and mythology to have a more powerful affect on today’s audience and better serve the practical needs of our production. [For example,] we introduced the new character of Troll, since so much is being said by Solness about it. Our Troll becomes very important as a theatrical storytelling device and performs all roles other than Solness, Aline, and Hilda.

Our interpretation of relationship between Solness and Hilda [the young woman who arrives and moves into his household] is less romantic and much darker and dangerous. Therefore, they are being expressed more via subtext, hints, and unspoken sensual tension, rather than talked about at length as Ibsen does using his poetical images of Hilda’s “tower with balcony” and “being captured by barbarian”. The whole end of the play had to be deconstructed because I decided to stage a ritual of purification/preparation for death, which Hilda performs on Solness. There are a few new additions as well:

  • We felt that the story about Aline’s dolls was so fascinating and unexpected coming from her character and important for the scene between Hilda and her in the third act that we couldn’t resist expanding that moment and adding more strange memories about those dolls.
  • A Nietzsche-inspired rant was added to Solness’ monologue in Act III as he describes his rebellion against God ten years prior to the events of the play.

What period and location have you chosen to set this play, and why?

Vladimir Rovinsky: We do not stage a historical play. All design elements and mannerisms are out of our time. The feeling of time is close to us and familiar, but unspecified and has more theatrical nature. Location is similar – there’s hints of Norway throughout and some good Scandinavian Ikea furniture, but not defined as [either] there or here.

What drew you to select this work from the Ibsen canon?


  • “Novi Most” means “New Bridge” in Russian.
  • The Halo videogame franchise features a character named The Master Builder.
  • H.L. Mencken described The Master Builder as “a sentimental epitaph on a love affair that [Ibsen] himself had suffered at 60.”

Vladimir Rovinsky: The Master Builder fascinates me because of its explosive mixture of realistic-looking people on one hand, and the same people as characters from myth on the other hand. As a director, I’m always attracted to plays where everyday life and reality intertwine with poetry and dream. Being a creative person myself, I’m deeply affected by Solness’ story: how to live if your creative fire is gone?

Jared Zeigler: Why this play was chosen and what it is saying go hand in hand. It’s from the latter part of Ibsen’s plays and he has moved on from more of a realist/naturalist style (even though there is still magic in those plays) and has returned to his mythical and poetic roots. Like good poetry, there isn’t necessarily one clear answer or message in The Master Builder; like a good myth, it’s archetypal.

Vladimir Rovinsky: This play sends a strong message of change. The world which belonged to creatures like Solness must go. It is too male-dominant, too self-centered, too obsessed with competition, and ultimately too impotent.

Alex Barreto Hathaway (as The Troll) and stage manager Deborah Ervin (center) look at a script in rehearsal, with Pearce Bunting (as Solness) in the background.

I interpreted Mr. Solness as a sort of sickness, which, like a cancer, suffocates the Master Builder [himself] – but not only him, though; everyone around him seems to be suffering from a lack of air to breath. Even [with] Hilda, who is quite strong-willed and independent, it seems to me [she] can’t be fully free until he is gone. So Hilda does bring retribution and helps the Master Builder purge himself. He can’t survive this and it is tragic and cruel, but ultimately unavoidable.

Jared Zeigler: [This play was written] towards the end of Ibsen’s career and he, like Solness, must face his own mortality. For Solness, there’s a question: does the creator die as soon as he stops being able to create? Because if you can’t create, what do you do?

It’s the choice between waiting and succumbing to the end of a career/old age/death, and going out in a blaze of glory with an incredible legacy left behind. The inevitability of it all is an appealing theme throughout: that the world changes and demands a new energy which is tragic and cruel, but ultimately unavoidable. Solness must move on, but this is a man who does not know how.

The Master Builder plays at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis, MN from April 14-22.

Basil Considine