John Gabriel Borkman -- Theater Review

Richard Termine

FIONA SHAW in "John Gabriel Borkman" (US Premiere) By Henrik Ibsen in a new version by Frank McGuinness;
Abbey Theatre, Ireland; Directed by James Macdonald; presented by the BAM; photo call photographed: Tuesday, January 11, 2010; 4:00 PM at the BAM Harvey Theater; Brooklyn Academy of Music, NYC

Despite the director’s efforts to mute the fireworks, there’s substantial reward in watching three theatrical titans face off on the same stage.

The title character in "John Gabriel Borkman" is a disgraced banker whose unchecked speculation using other people’s money brought personal and institutional ruin. Clearly, it’s no mystery why anyone would assume this 1896 Henrik Ibsen play might have relevance today.

Delivering every line with sleepy contempt, Alan Rickman’s Borkman is untroubled by accountability. He still believes in his omnipotence – even after three years in custody, five in prison and eight more in hermetic isolation at home since his release. Convincing himself that his greed was driven by the certainty that wealth would eventually trickle down to the people, he’s unquestionably a man for our times.

But even more than the banker, it’s his wife who gets under our skin. A late-19th century Ruth Madoff, she is imbued by Fiona Shaw with searing anger and pain and a gnawing hunger for vengeance.

Embittered is too mild a description for Gunhild, who stews in the shame brought upon her family and plots a rehabilitating “hero’s mission” to be carried out by her son, Erhart (Marty Rea). Refusing to look at or speak to her husband since his return home, she nonetheless shares his lack of remorse for the lives destroyed by his financial recklessness. His echoing footsteps upstairs are like the needles of her torture.

This is all psychologically rich stuff, and director James Macdonald, who first staged the production at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre last fall, evocatively suspends the characters in their own obsessive prisons. Tom Pye’s arresting set places just a few pieces of furniture in cavernous blackness, surrounded by massive accumulations of snow.

The triangle’s third point is Gunhild’s estranged twin sister, Ella (Lindsay Duncan), the former lover jilted by Borkman as a career move. Her investments strategically unharmed by his transgressions, Ella controls the estate to keep it out of government hands. She raised Erhart through childhood to remove him from the spotlight, but is now terminally ill and wants him back as her heir.

The big showdown is a wrestling match in which Borkman, Gunhild and Ella all lobby for control of their pawn, who has his own ideas. “People like us have no time for happiness,” observes Gunhild earlier. But happiness is what Erhart pursues by running off with flashy divorcee Mrs. Wilton (Cathy Belton), whose whorish crimson tones look suitably shrill against the otherwise monochromatic scheme of Joan Bergin’s costumes.

Once the battle for Erhart is fought and lost, the play is essentially over – the breathtaking snowstorm that follows notwithstanding. That weakness in this second-tier Ibsen is heightened in Frank McGuinness’ new version, which breathes acerbic humor into the exposition-heavy early scenes but steadily devolves into melodrama and repetitive overstatement.

Macdonald’s approach may be more at fault. He shuns an emotional connection to any of the characters, emphasizing their delusional states by placing them at an icy remove from one another and the audience. That makes it hard to care about Borkman’s fate as he wanders through the blizzard, or either of the squandered lives left in his wake.

If the play seems unbalanced, however, the performances in themselves are riveting. Rickman slathers scorn onto every syllable. The cruel humor he laces through Borkman’s observations is an almost fair exchange for the absence of pathos in his demise. Even when confronted with the crime of reneging on his affection for the woman he loved, he remains impassive, acquiring a sexual charge only when he talks of power.

As the character for whom the emotional stakes are highest, Duncan makes the intriguing choice to play Ella with glacial austerity, suggesting a lifetime of suppressed feeling. While her shared stage history with Rickman gives their scenes together an extra dimension (they co-starred in London and on Broadway in Les Liaisons Dangereuses and a celebrated Private Lives), it’s Ella’s chilly negotiations with Gunhild that really crackle.

Shifting fluidly between commanding outrage and maddening irritation, Shaw manages the tricky feat of portraying a woman in high-agita agony without sacrificing the character’s dignity. She wears Gunhild’s disgrace like a bleeding wound in a performance of magnificent fury that whets the appetite for her role as the vampires’ main adversary next season on True Blood.
Venue: BAM Harvey Theater, New York (through Feb. 6)
Cast: Fiona Shaw, Alan Rickman, Lindsay Duncan, Marty Rea, Cathy Belton, John Kavanagh, Amy Molloy, Joan Sheehy
Playwright: Henrik Ibsen, in a new version by Frank McGuinness
Director: James Macdonald
Set designer: Tom Pye
Costume designer: Joan Bergin
Lighting designer: Jean Kalman
Sound designer: Ian Dickinson
Presented by Brooklyn Academy of Music, Abbey Theatre, Ireland