Ibsen is tough. His plays are long, dense, and melodramatic. The Abbey Theatre’s production of “John Gabriel Borkman” presently running at the BAM Harvey Theatre is 2 hours and 40 minutes long (with intermission). The night we went, I was beginning a nasty winter cold, so when I learned the play’s intended length, I drooped.
However, this tight production featured three shining stars in the theatre firmament, and they kept this piece from becoming deadly. It didn’t hurt that this new adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s play is concisely written by Frank McGuinness and deftly directed by James Macdonald. Alan Rickman, Lindsay Duncan, and Fiona Shaw lift Ibsen’s “John Gabriel Borkman” above itself. It’s still melodrama, but it’s the best melodrama imaginable.
The set-up: It has been many years since bank manager John Gabriel Borkman’s arrest and imprisonment by the state for embezzlement. He lives incarcerated now in his own house – his wife downstairs, himself upstairs. The house is in fact owned by his sister-in-law, Miss Ella Rentheim. It's a visit by Miss Ella that starts the action of the play.
Alan Rickman is the titular John Gabriel Borkman, a 19th century Bernie Madoff who insists that, had he been left to his own devices for one more week, all his investors would have their money. Rickman moves like a big cat trapped in a dark Norwegian cage, pacing predictably over his wife’s head. And occasionally growling.
Fiona Shaw plays Borkman’s wife Gunhild, a woman who whines the livelong day of the ills done to her and her perfect son by this man. Reputation, of all things, cannot be restored for a convicted thief (she refers to him as “the bank manager,” “him,” never by name). She leans slightly forward as if she carries a weight on her shoulders, balanced by the bustle.
Lindsay Duncan’s Ella Rentheim was Borkman’s first and only true love, and she stepped in to buy the entire estate at auction when Borkman went to jail. Everyone lives now on her dime. She also took in the young son, Erhart, for several years, and developed a close relationship with him.
Where Borkman was once the contested property of the two sisters, this uncoveted role has been transfered to the son, whose heart, soul, and loyalty are the prey of Ella and Gunhild.
The triangle of Borkman, Gunhild, and Ella has been at odds for decades, and the one day and night in which the play takes place is the culmination of all the years, all the emotions, all the blame, all the lies, all the truths.
I first saw Lindsay Duncan 24 years ago when she starred in “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” with Alan Rickman on Broadway. She was luminous then and she still is. He was grace and lethality then, and he is now, although he’s not the same kind of dangerous. Fiona Shaw brings the excitement of a fulfilled character every time we see her, with an oddity, a twist, a quirk, always a real human being in a strange or terribly ordinary place. She opens and closes this play and is one of the few actresses who could assuredly be one of a threesome of stars and not just a third wheel to the Dynamic Duo of Rickman and Duncan.
Cathy Belton, as the divorced (shocking in the time period of the play) woman Mrs. Wilton, came in too high, at the height of her game, like a musical theatre actress starting at the top end of her range with nowhere else to go. She continued in this vein, as if seeking applause, trying to play as big as Rickman, Duncan, and Shaw without quite knowing how to go over the top without appearing to overplay.
The eagerly anticipated Erhart Borkman was fine – Marty Rea played kindly with the women who each wanted to smother him, was barely civil to his father, and warm with Mrs Wilton and Miss Foldal. Erhart is in high demand, with expectations from his mother, his aunt, his paramour. Mr. Rea is appropriately at sea amongst all these women pulling him this way and that. He will long earn his living in the theatre with few people knowing his name. He didn’t stand out amongst the stars here, but that wasn’t his job, and he knew it.
We wondered why the maid spoke in an Irish accent, forgetting that this was a production by Ireland’s Abbey Theatre. Whatever accent, Joan Sheehy as “Malene” had that mixture of subordination and familiarity an old family retainer needs.
Frida Foldal, the young girl giving music and naïveté to John Gabriel Borkman, was played demurely by Amy Molloy. Or perhaps brilliantly. She had no special something, but the character hasn’t. Frida is the girl that fades into the background in the room, the girl who wants to dance at the party but acquiesces to play the piano so that others may dance. She always will. That her character came through so clearly to me tells me that Ms. Molloy did her part well, serving the play. No shimmer or sparkle, since the character has none.
Finally, John Kavanagh embodies the role of Vilhelm Foldal, the sad sack friend of John Gabriel Borkman. Vilhelm is the would-be poet, and father of the wallflower behind the piano. Vilhelm is as naïve in middle age as Frida is in her youth. He cannot see what is right before him, even when Borkman cruelly tries to drive the message home. The story gets uglier and uglier, with everyone with any money at all (therefore excluding the Foldals and the maid) behaving terribly in the past and the present – let’s call it a sliding scale. The machinations of Mrs. Wilton are as nefarious as the fiscal manipulations of Borkham all those years ago.
These more-than peripheral characters serve as a glimpse of reality of the rest of the world of which John Gabriel Borkman, Gunhild Borkman, and Ella Rentheim have no clue. Their world has always been self-centered, selfish, and pointless. Mind you, the world around them isn’t so great either.
The story of the play is convoluted – neither life nor melodrama is simple or linear. “John Gabriel Borkman” requires exposition to explain the play’s forward movement, and I tend to think I’d hate it but for this production’s nimble pacing and superlative performances.
There is, however, a problem in the second half, near the end. The play’s already over, but it continues. No amount of whirling snow blown around the stage will change the fact that it’s time for the play to be finished. Everything’s been said, everything’s been done, everyone’s been left by their vain hope for change. Drop the curtain.
Whatever weaknesses of the play – its dated style, the unpleasantness of characters with whom one cannot really identify -- one thing will always resonate: Alan Rickman’s melodious voice.
Am I a fan of Ibsen? Yes and no. His plays are important in the history of theatre, and many a fine play that followed would not have been produced without Ibsen having come before. Ibsen’s plays were very bold, even scandalous, and searingly honest, in a time when such attributes in a theatrical production took actual courage. Watching those plays now, however, is rarely fun. Nevertheless, kudos to the Abbey Theatre, adapter/writer Frank McGuinness, director James Macdonald, for giving us a production that was fun to watch. Their production made the time far more than bearable, and the actors almost made me care about their archetypal characters.
And let’s not forget the other artists. Fine design all around: Set design by Tom Pye, lighting design by Jean Kalman, costume design by Joan Bergin, and sound design by Ian Dickinson.
This production of “John Gabriel Borkman” is worth your time, and it’s running at the BAM Harvey Theatre through February 6. Good productions of Ibsen in your lifetime will be rarities. Catch this one while you can.
I will close with my favorite line from the play: “Winter can drag on.” Can’t it just.
~ Molly Matera, hoping you’ll log off and go to the theatre.