Saturday, March 10, 2007

Theatre Review : John Gabriel Borkman by Henrik Ibsen, translated by David Eldridge - Donmar Warehouse (dir Michael Grandage 5/3/07)

John Gabriel Borkman is a banker who has served 5 years in prison for defrauding his customers. Since his release 8 years ago, he has paced his upstairs bedroom like a caged wolf, his wife Gunhild ignoring him for the disgrace brought upon the family. In Norway, revenge is a dish served very cold indeed. His wife's twin sister, Ella, was his lover before his fall, and still has some warmth in her heart for him. Meanwhile, his son, Erhart, has fallen in love with the smouldering widow down the road.

Borkman harbours Raskolnikov-like fantasies of the good that he could have done with the money he had stolen. If he had more time he could have paid it back, and benefited the people of Norway. He thinks that Erhart can help him recover his position. Meanwhile, Gunhild sees Erhard as the means of salvation of the family name whilst Ella sees him as an emotional substitute - in a maternal way - for Borkman. Erhart isn't up for this - he runs off with his widow and the promise of easy pleasure, taking the pathetic Foldal's daughter along for good measure, the widow's suggestion to tide him bye when the widow has lost her looks.

Not that one blames him, with the prospect of living with a mother whose heart has turned to ice despite the stultifying claustrophobia of the Borkman household. Emotions stretch, as Ella reveals that she is dying, and seeks the affection that she has foregone for so many years. Peter McIntosh's wood-panelled stage captures both the stifling intensity of the household but also the sparseness of the world outside, echoed in the spare beauty of Ibsen's late prose and the largely static staging.

Ian McDiarmid as Borkman displayed the fastidiousness of someone who is totally absorbed in themselves. Cynicism dripped off his finely enunciated phrases. Meanwhile Deborah Findlay and Penelope Wilton displayed the proper range of emotions, Rafe Spall's Erhart was suitably shallow and Lolita Chakrabarti heaved her decolletage as smouldering widows do.

But something was missing - I didn't feel at the end that I had experienced true tragedy. Borkman is an unpleasant human being, but his cynicism made him quite likable. Some lines were quite amusing. One sympathises with anyone living for years with Gunhild, but wonders why he didn't leave earlier. Meanwhile, the scene where Ella, Gunhild and even Borkman himself vie for the affections of the departing Erhart is silly, frankly.

In the end, I didn't care enough for the characters to feel much sympathy at the denouement. They all deserved the portion of misery they have been assigned. All except Erhart, whose prospect of sexual adventure - though no doubt transient and unfulfilling in the end - definitely seemed a better option to suffocation at home.

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