Alan Rickman stars as the eponymous disgraced banker in Ibsen’s 1896 play that resonates unsettlingly in post-crash Ireland.
An icy atmosphere is established from the first sight of Tom Pye’s set, a drawing-room with two walls bordered on two sides by snow-drifts that the flowing dresses of the actresses drag onto the drawing room floor. I’m not sure what Henrik Ibsen the high-priest of naturalist theatre would have made of this, but it visually conveys the frozen emotions and lives of the central characters, and allows for a spectacular set-change in the first act as one set of walls drops down from above while the extant walls head upwards. In this bleak drawing-room Gunhild (Fiona Shaw) listens to the endless pacing upstairs of her detested husband John Gabriel Borkman. Her brooding is interrupted by the unwelcome arrival of another nemesis, her twin sister Ella (Lindsay Duncan), who has come to win back the affections of Gunhild’s son Erhart (Marty Rea), who she raised after the scandal of Borkman’s criminal trial and subsequent bankruptcy and imprisonment.
For the most part this is a three-hander between Rickman, Duncan and Shaw – an impressively powerful triptych. Tony and Olivier winner Duncan is icily commanding as the driven Ella who forces the Borkmans out of their stasis. Shaw is occasionally histrionic but she makes the alternating rage and self-pity of her character utterly convincing. Rickman is wonderful, drawing comedy from lines which are funny only because of his sonorous voice, “Remain seated”, as well as intrinsically hilarious material, such as “I loved you more than life itself. But when it comes down to it one woman can be replaced with another”, and his villainous outburst “Has my hour come round at last?!” In support Talking Movies favourite Rea has a surprisingly minor part as Erhart, whose infatuation with Cathy Belton’s older Mrs Wilton threatens his role as pawn in the mind-games of the central trio, while John Kavanagh is sensational as Vilhelm Fordal, Borkman’s only remaining friend. Fordal is so optimistic as to be masochistic. He sees the best in everything and has forgiven Borkman for ruining him, just as he continues writing a truly diabolical play, and Kavanagh makes him both a tragic and a comedic figure – mirroring Borkman’s own delusions that he will be asked to return to banking.
Normally I’m the first to complain about Irish playwrights of a certain age who insist on mediating between Russian, Greek, and Norwegian classics and Irish theatre-goers but Frank McGuinness’ new version doesn’t insert Hibernicisms, instead he brings out the blackly comic undertones of Ibsen’s script while the contemporary resonances speak for themselves. Indeed the banker as tragic hero synchs well with Enron’s capitalist as irrationally exuberant pioneer of new ideas. Rickman has the charisma to make his obnoxious banker heroic as he outlines how his schemes for shipping and mining would have made Norway rich, how only he had the vision necessary to pursue such schemes, and how he was within 8 days of completing his plans when his lawyer exposed the fraud. Borkman convinces himself that he was as much a victim of the exposure of his speculative use of savers’ deposits as the thousands his actions left penniless. The ambitious madness of speculation allows him without guilt to proclaim “I have wasted 8 years of my life” in mentally re-staging and winning his trial.
Director James MacDonald, acclaimed for his work at the Royal Court Theatre, helms a satisfying mix of melodrama and black comedy culminating in a wonderful catharsis in an impressively staged snowstorm. This is essential theatre.
John Gabriel Borkman continues its run at the Abbey until November 20th.