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A Master at Work

Two-time Tony Award winner James Naughton talks about tackling the title role of Henrik Ibsen's The Master Builder at the Irish Repertory Theatre. logo
James Naughton
(© Joseph Marzullo/WENN)
James Naughton is no stranger to the footlights. He has won two Tony Award for his work in musical theater, as a hard-boiled detective in City of Angels and as gleefully glib lawyer Billy Flynn in the revival of Chicago, and directed his great friend, the late Paul Newman, in the 2002 Broadway revival of Our Town. Now, he's tackling a new challenge: the role of Halvard Solness in Henrik Ibsen's The Master Builder at the Irish Repertory Theatre. TheaterMania spoke with the actor about pursuing this challenging part and what's happened to him since he got it.

THEATERMANIA: Have you ever pursued a role like this before?
JAMES NAUGHTON: No, never. But when I read in the "Footnotes" column of The New York Times that Irish Rep was doing this play, I called my agent. It was something I'd read a long time ago, maybe in drama school, and back then I thought someday it would be a fascinating thing to do. So I went to my bookcase -- and was less enthusiastic. The translation was kind of fusty. So I said to my agent, maybe I'll just not pursue this. Then Ciaran O'Reilly [the company's executive director] called and told me there would be a new translation by Frank McGuinness. It makes all the difference. There are moments in it that are kind of electrifying.

TM: In a way, this is sort of a return to the stage for you, isn't it?
JN: Somebody had told me they read online that I was going to be making a "rare stage appearance" and I thought that was kind of interesting. But when I thought about it, I realized the last thing I did here was Democracy -- and that was four years ago! I've been directing for the last 12 years, so I feel as though I've been working in the theater. But when it comes right down to it, acting is what I really love to do. It is fun to be able to lose yourself in the world that you create. They call us the players, you know, and that's not by accident. We go out there and we play together.

TM: What specifically attracted you to the role of Solness?
JM: The play is about a guy who has been at the top of his game, who feels that maybe he got there because of the misfortune of others, particularly his wife. He realizes that happiness comes at a price and he's paying that price. That's a pretty modern kind of concept. And this young woman, Hilde, comes into his world and tells him that they had an incident when she was 12 or 13 years old and he behaved inappropriately, and she has been consumed with the idea of him for 10 years. That part is the thing that makes it so accessible to modern audiences. I understand at the time Ibsen's last plays were described as having "an explosion of passion."

TM: Hilde isn't the only woman in Solness' life, though, is she?
JN: No, we haven't mentioned the relationship he has with his wife. They have lost babies together. I know people who've lost children and they never ever recover from it. It's a scar that won't heal. And into this dark world comes this sunbeam, Hilde. She is a bolt of light. She has a message that he needs to hear, that he shouldn't apologize for his life or success. She says he has too sensitive a conscience.

TM: This isn't what one would call light fare. Is that a good thing?
JN: Wouldn't anybody love to do a role that is a little bit dark? It's fascinating, wonderful stuff to work out -- very complex. There wasn't any Prozac then. One of the things he's desperately afraid of is people taking over his position, and Hilde helps him to release control and make the ultimate, final move.

TM: Will you be taking on more roles like this in the future?
JM: We'll see how this one goes down. I'm consumed with it. The part is huge, and every single line has different parts and qualifying clauses and phrases that dangle off the end. So the concentration required to do this show is exhausting; and then you have to go home and come back and do it again. I guess I'm giving up golf for the rest of the year.

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