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 The Theatreguide.London Review


John Gabriel Borkman
Donmar Theatre Spring 2007

John Gabriel Borkman may be Henrik Ibsen's glummest play (which is saying a lot), so it won't be for all tastes. But if you can respond to a domestic drama of repressed passions, beautifully acted by stars at the peak of their powers, this can be a theatrical highlight of the year.

Like most of Ibsen's plays, we come in at the end of a saga with a complicated backstory. Sixteen years ago Borkman embezzled bank funds for an ambitious industrial project. His commitment to the scheme also led him to abandon Ella, the woman he loved, and subsequently marry her sister Gunhild.

During the bad times and Borkman's imprisonment, Ella raised their son Erhart, who has since returned to live with his mother. Borkman also returned after prison, but to live in a separate part of the house, never meeting his unforgiving wife.

Gunhild wants Erhart to devote his life to redeeming the family name but Ella, who is dying, wants him to return to her. Erhart, inevitably, has ideas of his own, and the crisis forces the three members of the older generation to meet, work their way through the past, and address the future.

In David Edridge's new adaptation, the two most noticeably recurring words are Me and Cold, and the forces of egotism and repressed passions drive the play. The three central characters are all passionate people who have, for their differing reasons, adopted the mode of steely coldness, and much of the dramatic intensity of the play comes from watching their armour strain and crack.

It is made more powerful in this production as director Michael Grandage has the trio played much younger than I've ever seen them before - late 40s, perhaps - so that such passions are strong and believable.

(The two major London productions of this play in the past 30 years were both cast and played much older. At the National Theatre in 1975 Ralph Richardson, Wendy Hiller and Peggy Ashcroft gave it an autumnal quality, as of remembered-but-no-longer-really-felt emotions. The 1996 NT version, with Paul Scofield, Vanessa Redgrave and Eileen Atkins, was defined by cold hatred all around.)

Here, Deborah Findlay (Gunhild), Penelope Wilton (Ella) and Ian McDiarmid all play full-out, generously serving each other and feeding off the energy each other provides. All three play monsters of egotism, unable to see beyond their own needs and their own versions of reality.

Findlay's Gunhild hates - that's who she is and what she does - and while she would prefer to express her hatred from the heights of self-righteousness, she can descend to an open cat-fight when provoked. Wilton's Ella is more subtle - she presents herself as just wanting the best for Erhart, but Wilton lets the mask slip to reveal sheer self-indulgence.

And McDiarmid makes Borkman a monster of self-delusion, bragging that sixteen years of calm and objective reconsideration of his case convince him that he was right all along. Where Scofield had given Borkman the demagogue's power to be so confident he almost convinced us, McDiarmid lets us peek at the madness behind the bluster.

And for the first time, in what may be a subtle contribution by adapter Edlridge, we are very aware that Erhart (Rafe Spall) is his parents' son, and that his yearning for freedom is just as self-indulgent and probably doomed as the older generation's delusions.

Nothing is really resolved at the end, but Ibsen - powerfully aided by adapter, director and cast - has exposed the blind alley that a lifetime of blindnesses and delusions have led to.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - John Gabriel Borkman - Donmar 2007