John Linklater considers a production which adds dimension and

substance to theatre in Scotland today.

THIS week Glasgow audiences have the chance to see one of the

outstanding performances of Scottish theatre this century. I make no

apology for returning to Brian Cox's Solness in The Master Builder, and

the arrival of the Lyceum production for seven performances from

tomorrow at the King's Theatre, Glasgow, offers an opportunity that

should not be missed.

On Saturday night Cox and his company finished a total sell-out run at

Dundee. After the ovation he stepped forward to thank the week's

audiences for their exceptional response. He said he felt humbled by the

experience. He felt proud to be a native of the city. Making his first

Dundee appearance in 30 years, it was a moving moment for everyone to

witness the emotional homecoming. Now he makes his first appearance on a

Glasgow stage. Cox is unusual. He combines the grandeur and weight of

the actor/manager in the old tradition with a highly personal, almost

intimate, communication. He is up there on the stage, undeniably one of

the great actors of his generation, yet he portrays a character who is

instantly recognisable.

It was the same with his Lear a few years ago. Audiences know his

Solness because they have already lived alongside him in the community,

the workplace, or the home, and they have been exasperated by him, hurt

by him, tried to reach him, and perhaps lost him. They might even have

been related to him.

The intense familiarity is partly to do with the voice, the register,

the tone. Cox uses something close to his own Dundee accent, but there

is a slight awkwardness and distance, suggesting that Solness might be a

self-employed builder from one of the small towns of Angus, or what

Dundonians used to call one of the teuchters of Kirriemuir.

Obviously, to a Dundee audience these inflections were instinctively

recognised, and they vindicated Cox's insistence in his production that

there is more comedy in Ibsen than we have previously recognised. The

subtle timing mechanisms of the piece have been refined since the

Edinburgh openings, and there are cast and structural changes with

Russell Hunter and Michelle Gomez coming in and a new and better focused


Cox has continued to investigate his character, so that what we see

now are new ambiguities in Solness rather than a reduced archetype. On

Saturday I was seeing the performance for the third time and was

fascinated by a body language I had not noticed before in Solness's

maladroit yet tentative physical contact with people and things. Just as

the key to his character is his total unawareness of his true self, he

reaches to touch and feel objects and human beings as though he were

encountering them for the first time. He never makes a full contact.

There is always a space left between the things and flesh that he

reaches towards. He manipulates, ushers, directs with shoving and poking

gestures, but he cannot bring himself to touch.

Where he finally makes a grasp, it is a clumsily executed manoeuvre

that he has not quite carried off convincingly, and he is left seizing a

wrist with inappropriate indelicacy, or he clutches a thumb when he has

intended a handshake.

Physical attraction both compels and baffles him.

This gestural language adds another layer to the portrait of a

character many will see as the embodiment of the Calvinist ethic, the

successful self-made man, pressurised, distracted, bullying,

guilt-ridden, trying to redeem the volatile outbursts of a sardonic and

intemperate nature, impatient, sarcastic, crude, ham-fisted, ambitious,

and ready to start shouting at God about his need for a bit of space to

get on with things.

A Norwegian critic, Yngar Brun, once said that Solness had to be ''As

dazzlingly beautiful as love, as hideous as disease or egotism, as

doubting and tormented as an evil conscience.'' Ibsen's biographer,

Michael Meyer, has remarked that the level of performance required for

the character was beyond the range of the actors who tackled him in the

playwright's own lifetime, and there is an implication that few have

succeeded since.

As far as English-language performance is concerned, Cox has had the

tremendous advantage of the obvious temperamental affinity between

Norwegian and Scottish cultures. His is a performance which

simultaneously explores new areas of Ibsen in translation (he sticks to

Meyer's text, but the register is distinct) and new boundaries for

Scottish theatre.

I said last week that The Master Builder was one of the productions of

recent years that showed what a Scottish National Theatre ought to be

about. This is not exclusively contingent upon Cox's performance.

Tom Piper's set design, with a series of apparently solid states in

panels and beams that are dissolved and rearranged, an irony echoed in

the models (suggesting architect's model, set designer's model and

archetypal Ibsen dolls house) which are presented at the beginning of

the three acts.

Morag Hood's performance as Solness's wife Aline is beautiful and

profound in its quiet enigmas, her resignation, and her terrifying

dignity, and the chilling exposure of her life-denying mystery -- her

nine china dolls destroyed in the fire (Ibsen's Rosebud revealed 50

years before Citizen Kane). Siri Neal is the girl who comes between the

symbiotic paralysis of the Solness marriage.

The touring production heralds what will be an intensive spell of

important theatre in Glasgow. I will be writing in the coming days about

Peter Brook's wonderful The Man Who, due at The Tramway next week, and

the astonishing Maly Theatre retrospective season for Mayfest.

In a week which also sees the opening of two highly attractive studio

shows at the Citizens' (In Quest Of Conscience, about Nazi death

commandant Franz Stangl, and Oscar Wilde's Salome, with the return to

the Citz of the breathtaking Julie Saunders), along with a new Scots

adaptation from Friday at The Tron of a Michael Tremblay play, Forever

Yours Marie-Lou, with the explosive Peter Mullan, it would be easy to

overlook a Lyceum production which now seems to have been around for a

while. This would be a mistake.

What The Master Builder will demonstrate, apart from a memorable

central performance in an exceptional production, is the new role that

the Lyceum will take in Scottish theatre. Cox's relationship with the

company, as associate artist, is much more likely to develop after the

news of the departure of administrator Roger Spence. The financial state

in which the company has been left and new artistic director Kenny

Ireland's initial settling-in period with an essentially conservative

audience, disguise a new agenda.

The Lyceum will put itself about as a major contributing force in

Scottish theatre. It will tackle plays by Scottish writers. And it will

mount shows on the same scale of ambition as The Master Builder, a

production which adds dimension and substance to theatre in Scotland