Theatre Review: John Gabriel Borkman

9 Apr

A play by Henrik Ibsen in a new translation by David Eldridge
Directed by Michael Grandage

Synopsis: Disgraced and destitute following a fraud scandal and imprisonment, John Gabriel Borkman (Ian McDiarmid) paces alone in an upstairs room. Downstairs, his family are trapped in the claustrophobic atmosphere of a household bound for explosion. A scorching indictment of 19th century capitalism, Ibsen’s penultimate play paints a devastating picture of selfish ambition.

It was my first time at the Donmar and was looking forward to this evening mainly because I am watching Ian McDiarmid. It was a very intimate theater which sits about just 200 people and we were right there literally breathing the same air as the actors. This is my second Ibsen play, the first one being Pillars of the Community at the National Theater last year. It made sense that since John Gabriel Borkman was written in 1896, almost twenty years after Pillars (written in 1877) that you can see and feel a different Ibsen in his later work. Although author Paul Binding who has written many articles about Ibsen says that in JGB, he was also probably revisiting his first prose-drama of contemporary life in Pillars.

From Peter McKintosh’s production set of birch trees, snow falling relentlessly outside the Borkman’s estate and the continuous hiss of wind, you can immediately sense the bitter and cold atmosphere of a Norwegian winter that doesnt seem to be any different from what is inside the house – the drawing room is dimly lit by lamps and with very little furniture, and as soon as we see the characters of Gunhild Borkman (Deborah Findlay) and Ella Rentheim (Penelope Wilton) you can easily cut the tension between these two women with a knife. And understandably so as Ella, who was once Borkman’s lover, has been looking after the Borkmans’ son Erhart (Rafe Spall) post-scandal and both women want the Erhart for themselves.

This is not a very easy play to watch, because Ibsen’s Borkman is dark and depressing. I was surprised to find a few humorous moments between McDiarmid’s Borkman and David Burke’s Vilhelm Foldal. One scene that I wished I was sitting somewhere else was to see Penelope Wilton’s reaction to McDiarmid’s “a woman can be easily replaced”, after she just told him how he killed every feeling of love in her heart since they parted. In this scene the theater was so silent you could hear a pin drop.

Ian McDiarmid was brilliant as Borkman, as he was pacing the room all that I could think of was this is Darth Sidious and we are in the same room! Penelope Wilton was outstanding, I loved her in Calendar Girls and as Simon Pegg’s mom in Shaun of the Dead but it’s her powerful performance as the scorned and ailing spinster Ella that will always remind me of what a great actress she is. I still can’t get over how the play ended, a dead man, and two shadows.

I am definitely looking forward to watch my third Ibsen.

John Gabriel Borkman: 4/5

Playing at the Donmar Warehouse until April 14.

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4 Responses to “Theatre Review: John Gabriel Borkman”

  1. Peter April 14, 2007 at 8:12 pm #

    It sounds impressive. It seems that the production captured the claustrophobic environment of Ibsen´s late work, which, like many geniuses, could foresee where the sign of the times was leading. What a complex role for all the actors involved, specially the great Ian. I really regret not having been a witness of such a special performance.

  2. Simone April 14, 2007 at 8:25 pm #

    Peter, Ibsen has written 25 plays, surely you can still catch one of those next time youre around town? Apparently, staging productions of JGB is quite rare. You did miss a great performance from Ian – the last I heard though is that he might be playing King Lear next. Fingers crossed!

  3. Simone December 21, 2007 at 12:19 am #

    I am definitely looking forward to watch my third Ibsen.

    You will alright, in Rosmersholm at the Almeida!

  4. eddie December 24, 2007 at 1:49 pm #

    Monks, libre mo ‘ko!

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