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Theater Review: ‘John Gabriel Borkman’ by Henrik Ibsen, with Alan Rickman and Fiona Shaw

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The Abbey Theatre’s production of John Gabriel Borkman, directed by the estimable James Macdonald and playing a limited run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, gives this late work of Ibsen’s an appropriately valedictory feel, as if the great Norwegian playwright had been looking for his Lear, setting forth two old men variously abandoned and dissolving the main protagonist’s “kingdom” before his eyes.

Except that this kingdom only ever existed in his mind.

After serving five years in prison for embezzlement, former bank manager John Gabriel Borkman (Alan Rickman) has banished himself to the upper floor of the family manse, where he paces incessantly and receives only the occasional visitor: old friend Wilhelm Foldal (John Kavanagh) and Wilhelm’s innocent young daughter, the budding musician Frida (Amy Molloy), who entertains gloomy Borkman on the piano.

Downstairs, Borkman’s estranged wife Gunhild (Fiona Shaw) rules an equally barren demesne, all her hopes lying with her son Erhart (Marty Rea). Erhart, alas for her, wishes to live his own life on the arm of the vampy and haughty divorcée Fanny Wilton (played colorfully by Cathy Belton) rather than pursue the noble missionary work Gunhild wishes for him. Meanwhile Gunhild’s twin sister Ella (Lindsay Duncan), a fourth tug on the play’s unholy trinity, has spent years raising Erhart in the wake of the scandal and wants his heart all for herself. The twist: years ago Ella was Borkman’s true love, but he gave her up to marry Gunhild in return for the financial rewards of his bank manager position. Gunhild spits out the word “happiness,” denying the existence of such a thing, as nastily as she refers to “the bank manager” upstairs. “People like us have no time for happiness.”

It’s an unusual kind of love triangle—even becoming, rather absurdly, a quadrangle later on—but Ibsen was after something more allegorical than realistic here. There’s much to admire along the way to the play’s drawn-out, melodramatic ending in a whooshing snowstorm: Frank McGuinness’s new adaptation, both noble and slick; Macdonald’s elegant staging, ably abetted by Tom Pye’s dark set and Joan Bergin’s perfectly stiff period costumes; and above all the performances of the superb cast.

In the first half, Gunhild and Ella, and then Borkman, reveal themselves in a stately progression of two-person scenes, icily paced to match the cold Scandinavian climate of which the huge snowdrifts heaped around the stage leave no doubt. These piles of white effectively evoke the suffocating circle of shame that has turned the Borkman house into a prison and its inhabitants into living ghosts, and also the “icy hand” that grips Borkman’s heart in that final scene that critics sometimes have trouble with. I think Borkman’s ultimate escape and meltdown is properly seen as the conclusion of the allegory.

That doesn’t make the play, or the production, a total success. For one thing, the cast plays the final collision of the three elders—all fighting for Erhart’s love—for laughs, which may well be the best of the poor choices available, but doesn’t flow entirely comfortably from the earlier stark portraits of these sad characters. And the final scene in the snow does indeed drag on.

But the production shows this problematic work in as good a light as you’re likely to see, revealing among other things the humor buried in the sniping dialogue. Ms. Shaw—whom, along with Mr. Rickman, the younger generation will recognize from the Harry Potter films—and Ms. Duncan jointly captivate as sisters who live distantly yet with a world of old history weighing them down; each has poignant moments, as does Mr. Rickman, biting through Borkman’s sourness to touch us even through our exasperation at his mean sarcasm.

The sound of Borkman’s footsteps above mark the dry passage of Gunhild’s broken years, while his own days sail by under the ticking of a grandfather clock. His son’s escape from the clutches of the colorless household shows Borkman his own way out of the deep northern freeze. Whether it presages any release for either of the sisters is left to the imagination, but their clasping of hands at the end shows at least that life does go on and that family can mean something—even if no one’s ready for that thing called “happiness.”

John Gabriel Borkman plays through Feb. 6 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music‘s Harvey Theater, Brooklyn, NY.

Photos by Richard Termine.  Previous page: Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman. This page: Marty Rea, Cathy Belton, Lindsay Duncan, Fiona Shaw.

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is an Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. He writes the blog Park Odyssey, for which he is visiting and blogging every park in New York City—over a thousand of them. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. By night he's a working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.
  • http://blogs.epicindia.com/leapinthedark Richard Marcus

    Damn, that’s why people live in New York City – the chance to see people like Fiona Shaw and Alan Rickman on stage together performing in obscure works by playwrights like Ibsen. Great review Jon and I’m insanely jealous.

  • http://jonsobel.com/ Jon Sobel

    For sure. If you manage to catch them while they zoom through… I suppose it’s the next best thing to living in the UK, as far as seeing great British theater goes.

  • Mandy Johnson

    Aaaaghh….Bring it to the D.C Area – we can be civilized on occasion….Rickman and Fiona Shaw!!!..do we need brooms and wands to extend the run? Fabulous review and ditto on jealousy.

  • Sharon

    I had the fortune to see this production at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre (travelling from Kent, UK in order to see it) back in October. My main reason was to see Alan Rickman (being a big fan of his) but I was not disappointed with any aspect of it: This was theatre at its best – stunning set, stunning cast and stunning performances!