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A CurtainUp Review
John Gabriel Borkman
The play is not performed frequently, and considering it tiresome repetitions and ponderous back story, which takes up most of the first act, it's easy to see why. However, in the hands of Ireland's Abbey theatre and director James Macdonald, ut does have memorable moments that sparkle for patient theatergoers.
One would think, if only from the title, that this is primarily about John Gabriel Borkman (Alan Rickman), the banker who, having been released from prison eight years before the play begins, spends his time isolated in his attic room plotting his comeback while his wife and son conduct their lives downstairs. But Borkman is actually the least interesting character in the drama.
The real conflict in John Gabriel Borkman is between his wife, Gunhild (Fiona Shaw) and her twin sister, Ella (Lindsay Duncan), who are battling over the heart of the Borkman's son, Erhart (Marty Rea). It was Ella who came to the family's aid after Borkman's arrest, providing the Borkmans with a home and taking care of young Erhart for many years. Now, faced with a terminal illness, Ella wants Erhart to be her comfort in her last days.
Gunhild, however, has other plans. She has placed all her hopes on this son who, she believes, will in some way cleanse the family name so she can once again hold her head up high in the world. As foolish as this plan sounds, it becomes patently ridiculous as soon as Erhart appears. The young man, far from harboring any desire to rescue his mother or comfort his aunt, wants only to woo Mrs. Fanny Wilton (Cathy Belton), an older woman and a widow of dubious reputation.
There's a lot more back story concerning Borkman and Ella's love for each other before he sacrificed her in order to advance his career. But what makes this production worth seeing is the way Shaw and Duncan spar with each other in their no-holds-barred efforts to get their way. Duncan has the gentler voice, but under the velvet glove her fist is just as lethal as the ferocious Shaw's.
Although one might be able to make a case that Ibsen handles his women better than his men, which is especially true in John Gabriel Borkman, Rickman does little to make his character sympathetic or engrossing. One of the problems is simply elocution. Rickman mumbles his way through the play and many of his lines are lost in the walls of his attic room or later in the play in the wind and snow which surround and smother the family's last hope.
Many people may see parallels between Borkman and any one of the disgraced business tycoons of our time. This is certainly valid. But John Gabriel Borkman is not so much the story of Borkman as of his family. These are the victim/co-conspirators that, in real life, we seldom get to know. As Ibsen's play painfully reminds us their suffering is nonetheless real,.
Fiona Shaw appeared with philosopher Simon Critchley in Rubin Museum of Art's Talk About Nothing series on January 17.The two spoke at great length on the role of nothing in theater — most particularly in Samuel Beckett and Henrik Ibsen.
Shaw maintained that all art begins with nothing and panic is the vacuum between nothing and something, which the actors helps produce. In the theater of the late 19th century much of that panic is because "characters are floating on the stage without God".
Not surprisingly, Shaw saw John Gabriel Borkman in terms of the two sisters who "exchange identical charges". She said the sisters speak the "language of pauses". Everyone in the play acts on the basis of what each thinks is right, but in the end their words are hollow and much of the meaning is in what is not said.
Shaw's exchange with Critchley certainly gave the audience much food for thought and, for those who were about to see John Gabriel Borkman, a nice bit of insight. At the end of the evening, it had become obvious that Shaw is not only a great actress but a highly intelligent woman who can hold her own even with well-known philosophers.
Editor's Note: As Paulanne said, this isn't one of Ibsen's more popular or frequently produced plays. However, in the years Curtainup has been on line, it has cropped up for review three times. Links to reviews of those production follow.
John Gabriel Borkman - London
John Gabriel Borkman - Century Center
John Gabriel Borkman-Pearl Theater