Henrik Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman shows that the late, rarely performed masterwork has unexpected juice. Unlike A Doll’s House, which provides a window into the pre-feminist past that has changed mightily since that play was written, this 1896 work is a timeless portrait of a man whose pursuit of wealth leads him to ruin. The splendid Abbey Theatre production at BAM is a demonstration of the riches to be found in lesser-known Ibsen works. The plot touches on art vs. business, work vs. family, and especially the dangers of the pursuit of power. There are even occasional elements that recall the folkloric Ibsen of Peer Gynt: Borkman’s boyhood working in the mines is suggested by the clangor of picks and shovels in Ian Dickinson’s sound design. “Down there it sings, the iron ore,” reminisces Borkman to a companion.
At the outset, Borkman is living as a hermit on the second floor of a manor house. Convicted of embezzlement at the bank he ran, and released from prison eight years earlier, Borkman sees only two regular visitors: his old clerk, Foldal, and Foldal’s daughter, Frida, who plays piano for him.
The first floor is occupied by Borkman’s wife, Gunhild, who has not set eyes on him since the trial. The estate, however, is owned by Ella Rentheim, Gunhild’s twin sister, who installed Mrs. Borkman there following the notorious case—Ella’s funds at the bank were the only ones untouched by Borkman, who once loved her. Moreover, after the trial the emotionally devastated Gunhild allowed Ella to raise her son, Erhart, until he was 14. The boy returned to Gunhild at the time of Borkman’s release, and Ella has not seen Erhart in the eight years since. And only rarely does son visit father.
Now, however, Lindsay Duncan’s world-weary Ella is dying, and she has come to see Gunhild, precipitating a struggle among the three older characters for the possession of Erhart (Marty Rea). Gunhild, played by Fiona Shaw with maternal smothering and fierce resentment at her lot, demands that Erhart stay with her and care for her. Ella wants to free him from Gunhild so he can spend the next few months with her. And Borkman (Alan Rickman) expects his son to clear his name.
But Rea’s Erhart is unbowed by their power and remains his own man: he is in love with Mrs. Fanny Wilton (Cathy Belton), who has been abandoned by her husband. Their relationship perhaps draws on Ibsen’s own late-life infatuation with a younger woman and his disdain of social mores: Fanny is older than Erhart, and she isn’t divorced.
Although the trio of principals have emotions frozen in the past, under James Macdonald’s direction the lead actors find passion, pain and humor in their frigid lives. Tom Pye has set the play in a dark void with huge snowbanks circling the perimeter of the stage, suggesting both the coldness and isolation of the characters.
Borkman is chillier than some of Ibsen’s heroes. His monomania for power, though he intended to use it for the betterment of society, has disrupted and ruined the lives of his family, Foldal, and everyone who invested with him. (Think of Bernard Madoff.) And though he claims to be the victim of an injustice, Borkman is arrogant and unbending both in his carriage and his opinion of himself. Yet Rickman gives him a polish and pride that elicit one’s sympathy for him. And Frank McGuinness’s translation allows him what feel like comic aphorisms worthy of Oscar Wilde. When Borkman claims to have wanted power in order to bring happiness to the world, Gunhild rebukes him: “You had power to make me happy—did you use it?” Borkman responds, dryly: “In a shipwreck, someone always drowns.”
Ella, who was in love with Borkman before he ceded her to his rival, lawyer Hinkel, in exchange for Hinkel's helping him advance at the bank, has never loved anyone else, with the exception of Erhart. Duncan makes her a woman stronger in composure and intelligence than passion, but one feels her desperate need for her nephew.
Ibsen leavens the grim story with large amounts of humor. Shaw in particular finds laughs where one least expects them. When Ella asks Gunhild if she doesn’t occasionally meet Borkman, Shaw almost throws away the line, “Bump into him at parties, you mean?” Her performance is masterly in timing and intonation.
If at times the play becomes melodramatic, and the last scene notably so, it is more Ibsen’s fault than that of the superb cast embodying the tortured souls of his grim yet fascinating play.