Ireland’s famed Abbey Theatre brought its production of Henrik Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman to the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater. Three genuine stars head the cast of Ibsen’s penultimate play (1896), relatively rarely revived despite considerable contemporary interest.
Bank manager John Gabriel Borkman, lover of Ella Rentheim, yielded her to a helpful lawyer friend, and lovelessly married her twin sister, Gunhild. For embezzlement, exposed by that very lawyer, he spent five years in jail while Ella, rather than the scandal-tainted Gunhild, brought up his son Erhard, who later returned to his mother. Released, Borkman spent the next eight years on the upper floor of his apartment, shunning Gunhild in self-imposed exile and waiting for a delegation to recall him to power.
Fiona Shaw, Lindsay Duncan, Marty Rea, Alan Rickman.>>>
Downstairs, Gunhild nurtures dreams of Erhard heroically clearing the Borkman name and living with her, even though it emerges that he has become the lover of Mrs. Fanny Wilton, a rich widow, seven years his senior, with whom he plans escaping abroad.
Ella, still rich because Borkman spared her money, returns mortally ill, and hoping that Erhard will spend her last year with he. The two women fight over Erhard, and finally even John Gabriel comes around to claim him. There is also a subplot illustrating the ironies of fate.
Now, John Gabriel is not a mere Bernie Madoff. Although he sees himself grandiosely in the image of Napoleon, he wishes to be a benevolent monarch, who c with the embezzled money would have enriched also his very victims. His rehashed fantasies, finally outdoors against a background of symbolic mountains, are among the play’s several poetic heights.
In almost all of Ibsen’s plays, the subtly evoked past figures as prominently as the dramatic present– in this work perhaps especially so. And there are, as usual, powerful images. Thus, well before we see Borkman, we hear him pacing, like the caged animal he has become, on what in effect is his wife’s ceiling, making Gunhild even more embittered.
In that already, the stage of BAM’s Harvey Theater proves inhospitable. An enormously high space, it cannot provide that important ceiling, and forces even a stove pipe to extend way beyond credibility. There is also minimal scenery, neither confining walls nor towering mountains. Instead, the set designer Tom Pye has provided a number of large, permanently visible snow mounds all around, overstating a fairly obvious point. Jean Kalman’s chilly lighting and Joan Bergin’s austere costumes, however, are fully on target.
James Macdonald has directed this “new version” by Frank McGuinness, sensibly no more than a good translation, with deftness, although somewhat hampered by insufficient scenery, which also throws an additional burden on the actors. A snowstorm, not in Ibsen, is rather too spectacular and a bit of a scene stealer, making you wonder also why the characters, insufficiently clothed, wander about in its still snowing aftermath.
The two chief women are both superb. Lindsay Duncan, the blond Ella, is quintessentially feminine, the loving, womanly woman who proved a good substitute mother even to her betrayer’s son. A lovely actress, she combines beauty with intelligence, and economically exhibits both solicitude and self-control. Fiona Shaw’s Gunhild is the dark, powerful, almost masculine woman, the intensity of whose behavior and passion of whose outcries more than merely verge on the terrifying.
Alan Richman, a powerful actor in scary roles (although he was fine too opposite Duncan in a revival of Noel Coward’s Private Lives) does not fully convey the visionary side of Borkman, that which elevates him above mere cynicism and an unrepentant belief in his innocence. He made me long for the 1975 London revival of the play with Ralph Richardson opposite Peggy Ashcroft and Wendy Hiller.
The supporting cast is perfectly satisfactory, although Marty Rea does not quite manage, what with somewhat limited help from the playwright, to make Erhard fully worth all that fighting about. A visit to BAM, though, even across real snow mounds outside, proved eminently worthwhile.
Photo by and courtesy of Richard Termine.
BAM Harvey Theater, through February 6 Brooklyn,
651 Fulton Street
Tickets: (718) 638-7790 or www.BAM.org
John Simon has written for over 50 years on theatre, film, literature, music and fine arts for the Hudson Review, New Leader, New Criterion, National Review, New York Magazine, Opera News, Weekly Standard, Broadway.com and Bloomberg News. He reviews books for the New York Times Book Review and Washington Post. He has written profiles for Vogue, Town and Country, Departures and Connoisseur and produced 17 books of collected writings. Mr. Simon holds a PhD from Harvard University in Comparative Literature and has taught at MIT, Harvard University, Bard College and Marymount Manhattan College. To learn more, visit the JohnSimon-Uncensored.com website.