Today was not really the day I wanted to see almost three hours of Ibsen. The children had been a bit fussy all day; nothing unusual, just crying at inopportune moments, the older one getting upset about me going out, the little one wanting more of my milk in the middle of M&S, and then regurgitating most of it all over themselves. I sometimes think maybe it is flowing too fast.
They’re both so nice though, and I keep reminding myself of how lucky I am to have them, not that it helps when the dark fears of losing them really come grasping at me in the middle of the night.
So I was quite upset to find that the Ibsen in question – The Master Builder with Ralph Fiennes at the Old Vic – features the death of two baby twin boys. I was about to dissolve in the usual floods of tears at anything involving the death of children, but the cause of their death was so ludicrous that the spell was broken, and it was merely a woman on a stage, wearing a costume and telling a story about things that she deemed in her Norwegian protestant way to be ordained. They were supposedly poisoned by their mother’s milk, because she got a fever. Given that the play was essentially about Freud and family ties that don’t quite bind, perhaps that was meant to be untrue, and merely a figment of the mother’s or father’s imagination. It was a strange sort of play. It was an engagingly acted production, although the actress (Sarah Snook) playing the free spirit against the insecure older establishment figure was a little out of her depth. She had a good physical presence, but she answered so quickly in dialogue that it never quite seemed like a real conversation. I’m sure it was meant to convey spontaneity and vitality, but only lent the master builder more gravity, rather ironically given the ending.
The figure of this man who had built an empire out of exploitation and strange luck reminded me somewhat incongruously of Samuel Greg, the owner until his death in 1834 of a historic cotton factory at Quarry Bank Mill in Cheshire, which we went around at the weekend. I was quite fascinated by the popular image of this man as a generous philanthropist, interested in the welfare of the children who were at the time routinely set to work whole days in dangerous factories. In fact, it was not philanthropy, but business. He recognised that workers dying was bad for business, as it damaged morale and meant he had to find, transport and train some more paupers from Chelsea (oh, the glittering irony). His wife was more selflessly interested in their welfare, and in the abolition of slavery. Given that the factory breached the terms of the 1833 Factories Act twelve times in little over a year, it would seem her influence was ultimately good for business. I kept picturing those poor little raggedy urchins , trying to help their parents make ends meet, grateful for an extra slice of bread, living a short and miserable life. It does put the endless handwringing over our son’s minor foot deformity into perspective. He is after all a jolly chubby baby who has every opportunity.