Ibsen’s Master Builder Halvard Solness is alone with unexpected visitor Hilda Wangel. “You held me in both your arms and bent me back and kissed me many times,” says Hilda, recalling an evening 10 years back when she was, as Solness admits, “only a child”.
All at once they are no longer alone. The doors of the “worn” rust-coloured structure in the background fly open and couples holding newspapers and magazines in their hands emerge and stare at Solness and Hilda. Was this then an instance of child abuse?
Wlodzimierz Staniewski, a luminary of Polish theatre, believes it may have been. “Ibsen’s short dialogues, which could well have inspired Beckett” have the power to spark off myriad suggestions and associations, said Staniewski, in the city for the Calcutta premiere of The Master Builder, originally prepared by Padatik for the Ibsen Festival in Delhi under his direction.
In the Calcutta production, Staniewski developed the underlying tussle between the petty and the impossible.
“There seems to have been a loss of faith on Solness’s part. He started out as a man on a divine mission building structures in God’s domain but later he builds just small houses. Similarly, we find Aline Solness saying that what hurt her most after the fire was not so much the loss of her children but the little things like old photographs, dolls. One wonders why. Was Ibsen a prophet that he could foresee our present age when man can no longer believe in big ideologies, big missions?” he said.
What resulted was the addition of a contemporary link, more explorations and discoveries of what Staniewski calls the hidden territories between the lines of the text.
Like in Act II, Aline Solness is seen performing, very subtly, “the opposite ceremony of marriage” by ritually stripping off various bits of jewellery symbolic of the “family values and expectations with which an Indian bride is heaped”.
Apart from the man-woman conflict, the fear of being outrun by youth, progress and change is central to The Master Builder and this makes “the play very contemporary, universal and easily adaptable to different cultures and ethnic traditions”.
Staniewski admits to having a personal weakness for Solness. “I too have made a huge investment in a six-hectare centre for theatre practice and I am old enough to be familiar with the dilemma of a man on the edge, a man confronting his limits wishing revitalisation,” he said.
“There is a moment in The Master Builder when Solness grasps Hilda’s hand and says ‘youth against youth’. He means that ‘you are young, but not stupid and I, though no longer biologically young, am spiritually young and my soul reverberates with creativity. Let us join in the fight against the forces of the young and stupid’. I am for such a unity and sadly even today we find most of our youth have been laundered by the media and publicity machinery into cretinos (idiots).”
So what is the role of theatre? What are its prospects in the Cretino world? “The importance of theatre is unquestionable, we are in a transition from the age that gives importance to soap operas which have the tendency to level out all the world and theatre which shows up the differences between people, countries, ideas…. And I feel the theatre of political and social importance will return,” said Staniewski.
The production also boasted the innovative use of Chopin’s music blended with sitar and tabla and classical Indian dance.