Auckland Theatre Company Online, Global

08/08/2020 - 30/08/2020

Production Details


Auckland Theatre Company’s innovative ATC Onstage|Onscreen brand presents its second online offering this August  

Following the success of Chekhov’s The Seagull – A new online version, which drew audiences of over 25,000 and critical acclaim from around the world, Auckland Theatre Company will present Henrik Ibsen’s The Master Builder in association with MiNDFOODnext month. 

When COVID-19 lockdown made it impossible to present The Master Builder onstage, Auckland Theatre Company made the decision to keep their actors employed and the work alive.  At Level 2, the actors came together in the rehearsal room to explore the work.

As restrictions lifted in New Zealand in June, it became possible to present a rehearsal room performance season of the play to small, socially distanced audiences. These were amongst the first post-lockdown live performances in the world. The Master Builder was then recorded as a studio presentation for all to experience, as a high-quality hybrid of theatre and film.  

In The Master Builder, one of Ibsen’s most fascinating and enigmatic works, a middle-aged builder/property developer has his creative flame reignited by a young woman from his past, with dramatic consequences. 

Director Colin McColl ONZM says “At the core of the play is the hauntingly complex relationship between Solness and Hilde; between man and woman; youth and age; between a remorseful guilt-ridden soul and an aggressively amoral will. The Master Builder continues to fascinate audiences today because of the countless interpretations it offers up, and it’s been thrilling to explore them with this stellar cast.”

Through talent and hard work, Halvard Solness has achieved no small measure of fame and fortune. But the unexpected return of Hilde Wangel to his life threatens to shake the foundations of his success. 

In the demanding titular role, esteemed actor Andrew Grainger (Six Degrees of Separation, Filthy Business, The Breaker Upperers) brings vast stage and screen experience to the production.

Playing the dangerously charismatic Hilde is Kalyani Nagarajan (Mrs Krishnan’s Party, A Fine Balance, TEA), supported by an outstanding cast, including Ian Mune OBE (The Audience, To Kill A Mockingbird, Ike: Countdown to D-Day), Justin Rodgers (Shortland Street – The Musical, Mrs Krishnan’s Party, Mrs Krishnan’s Dairy), Hera Dunleavy (The Audience, Filthy Business, In Dark Places), Holly Hudson (Filthy Business, The Brokenwood Mysteries, To Kill a Mockingbird) and Nicola Kawana (Astroman, Rendered, Shortland Street). 

McColl is joined on the creative team by Set and Lighting Designer Tony Rabbit (The Seagull, The Cherry Orchard, A Dolls House), Costume Designer Nic Smillie (Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead, Filthy Business, To Kill a Mockingbird) and Composer and Sound Designer John Gibson (The Cherry Orchard, Nell Gwynn, Billy Elliot the Musical).

Director of Photography, cinematographer Adam Luxton (On an Unknown Beach, Hot Mother, We Feel Fine) is a filmmaker from Aotearoa. His films have featured in international film festivals, and are described as “confident, fiercely independent, generous, and often beautiful.” – James Gates, Pantograph Punch 

This inventive adaptation of a magnificent work from a master playwright will premiere on YouTube on Saturday 8 August, 7.30pm, available for free viewing online until 30 August 2020.

There will also be a ticketed showing on the big screen at ASB Waterfront Theatre on Friday 28 August, 7pm, with a live Q&A with Colin McColl and the cast following the screening. 

Andrew Grainger:  Solness 
Kalyani Nagarajan:  Hilde Wagnel 
Ian Mune:  Brovik
Hera Dunleavy:  Mrs Solness 
Justin Rogers:  Ragnar 
Nicola Kawana:  Dr Herdal 
Holly Hudson:  Kaja Fosli 

Adeline Esther 
George Maunsell 
Joseph Nathan 
Travis Graham 
Fabian MacGregor 
Salome Grace Neely 
Nadine Kemp 
Ben Lamb 
Lucas Haugh 
Matthew Kereama 

Henrik Ibsen:  Playwright
Colin McColl:  Director
Tony Rabbit:  Set and Lighting Designer
Nic Smillie:  Costume Designer
John Gibson:  Composer and Sound Designer
Adam Luxton:  Director of Photography 

Webcast , Theatre ,

The pared-back aesthetic sharpens our focus on the play’s essential insights

Review by John Smythe 09th Aug 2020

When a 128 year-old play reverberates with human behaviours and consequent issues that echo concerns we’re confronting today, it’s clear it’s a classic ripe for revival. The predations of property developers on social infrastructure and of men in positions of power on younger women loom large in The Master Builder, up against the timeless and universal themes of freedom, responsibility, love, innocence, joy – and truth, which underpins all of Henrik Ibsen’s better-known plays.

In her Penguin Classics[i] introduction, Una Ellis-Fermor also suggests, “Ibsen is no longer concerned so much with man in relation to society as with man alone with his own mind and with the consequences not only of his actions but of his dreams.” But through a 2020 lens, the personal behaviour of the “man alone with his own mind” is inextricably linked to society. The personal is societal and therefore political.

The 22nd of his 25 plays, The Master Builder is one where Ibsen’s writing is more obviously symbolic/ metaphorical/ allegorical. Was Ibsen in Anton Chekhov’s sights just three years later, perhaps, when he satirised symbolism in The Seagull, so memorably reimagined by the Auckland Theatre Company just three months ago? Not that Chekhov’s Konstantin sets his fated play in naturalistic surroundings, as Ibsen does: “A plainly furnished workroom in Solness’s house …” (The translation used in this production is not credited.)

Directors, designers and performers of these later Ibsen plays need to find a balance between naturalism and symbolism; the real and imagined; objective and subjective realities. In this Onstage|Onscreen ‘rehearsal room performance season’,[ii] director Colin McColl – an acknowledged world expert in refreshing Ibsen – and his team opt for a metatheatrical opening with people approaching or assembling in the rehearsal room while Composer and Sound Designer John Gibson plays with his instruments and a watch-checking Ian Mune does the CodeCracker.

Andrew Grainger, cast as the eponymous master builder/ architect/ property developer Halvard Solness, walks purposefully through the ATC buildings. Seen from the outside, the room he is destined for is lit by four large floodlights. Inside, now clad in a hi-viz vest and hard hat, he grasps a scaffolding structure in apparent torment, his back to a conical heap of blackness (I’m guessing the burnt husks of coffee beans). This recurring motif is left for us to interpret as, later, it is incorporated into the action. The dark, guilt-infused self-doubt that fuels his boorish behaviour, perhaps?

Set and Lighting Designer Tony Rabbit has also minimally furnished the studio’s open space with a couple of slim, modern desks and designer chairs – but a large electronic typewriter, and Nic Smillie’s mostly conservative costume designs suggest we’re back in the 1980s when the office dynamics we’re about to witness were more common and less openly questioned than now.

The ‘real world’ story finds Ian Mune’s ailing old Kunt Brovik, who once employed Solness and is now his employee, trying to convince his boss to give his draftsman grandson (son in the original), Ragnar (Justin Rogers), a break by letting him prove himself as an architect. Grainger’s embodiment of irrational recalcitrance reveals Solness to be a control-freak beset by a fear of being superseded by younger and more ‘with-it’ talents.

Holly Hudson’s secretary/office manager Kaja Fosli, totters about on high-heels and removes her eyeshade when Solness appears because she fears it makes her look ugly. Although she has been engaged to Ragnar for four years, she is in the thrall of her boss in a way that recalls the late 1990s Clinton-Lewinsky affair. But Solness, in conversation with their family friend and doctor about his wife’s suspicions, claims the young woman is but one of many who have been attracted to him. He believes she came to work for him because he silently wished it, in order to stop Ragnar leaving to set up on his own. And now her trembling in his presence is “a damn nuisance”.

Casting Nicola Kawana as Dr Tina Hadal removes the ‘old boys club’ dimension, and her casual disinterest adds credence to Solness’s suspicion that his upright and self-contained wife Aline (Hera Dunleavy), has deputed the doctor to assess his mental stability. A strange backstory emerges later about the fire that destroyed the house Aline grew up in – something Solness had also privately dreamed of, to clear the way for a lucrative development. Apparently the deaths of their baby twin sons were not caused by the fire but by the way Aline’s distress over what she had lost affected her milk. They never speak of it now.

Solness feels ambivalent about this power he seems to have whereby his simply wishing for something makes it happen. He is thrilled by the opportunities that seem to have come his way by luck – but that dark, unspoken-of guilt-riddled heap lurks in the middle of the room like the proverbial elephant.

What brings it all to a head is the sudden arrival of a seemingly free-spirited young woman, Hilde Wagnel (a character Ibsen first introduced two plays earlier, in The Lady from the Sea). Up until this point the whole cast – astutely shot by Director of Photography Adam Luxton – have worked with director McColl to imbue their characters with compelling humanity, but Kalyani Nagarajan’s almost frighteningly vibrant Hilde Wagnel brings a whole new performance dynamic to the show.

While she could well have sprung from a late 1960s or 70s commune or rock concert in this iteration, Hilde may also be seen as a conflation of the green-clad Troll princess in Peer Gynt and Hedda Gabler in the same-named play, written just before The Master Builder. It seems that when she was 13, Solness exploited her innocence by promising to build her a tower and make her his princess, sealing the deal with man kisses – and now she has come to claim it.

Once could choose to assume that she, like Kaja, is besotted by his power and apparent charisma. But why would a playwright as good as Ibsen simply magnify an existing character? He wrote this 13 years after he upset the patriarchal status quo with A Doll’s House so I choose to see Hilde’s ingenious agenda as a highly sophisticated form of feminist revenge.

I’m not about to reveal what happens, or how. Suffice to say, as per the classical law of hubris, Solness becomes the author of his own fate, mesmerised by the same powers he wrought upon this young woman all those years ago.

This production of The Master Builder sees Colin McColl at the top of his game as a director of reinvigorated Ibsen works and the ATC at the cutting edge of bringing the stage to screen. Nothing is lost by its being in ‘rehearsal mode’. The pared-back aesthetic sharpens our focus on the play’s essential insights.

See it here, free (any time from now until 7pm on Sunday 30 August, NZ time).

[i] Ibsen: The Master Builder and Other Plays, Penguin Classics, 1958 (Rosmersholm, The Master Builder, Little Eyolf and John Gabriel Borkman).

[ii] From the online Programme:
How the online version came to be
   When the COVID-19 lockdown made it impossible to present The Master Builder on stage, we made the decision to keep our actors employed and the work alive.  At Level 2, the actors came together in the rehearsal room to explore the work.
   As restrictions lifted in New Zealand in June, it became possible to present a rehearsal room performance season of the play to small, socially-distanced audiences. These were amongst the first post-lockdown live performances in the world. The Master Builder in association with MiNDFOOD was then recorded as a studio presentation for all to experience, as a high-quality hybrid of theatre and film.


Make a comment

Wellingon City Council
Aotearoa Gaming Trust
Creative NZ
Auckland City Council