John Gabriel Borkman, a corrupt banker who sacrifices love for the sake of his own advancement, has all the ingredients of a very urgent morality tale. First performed in Copenhagen in December 1896, the play focuses on the effects of Borkman’s embezzlement and subsequent imprisonment on the life of this family.
Frank McGuinness’s new translation clearly recognises the contemporary parallels without over-emphasising them. In his restrained text, he remains very faithful to Ibsen’s version. The action opens as Borkman’s (Rickman) wife Gunhild (Shaw) potters around their drawing room, nervously alert to the sound of his footsteps overhead. Ever since his release from prison eight years previously, Borkman has prowled the upper floor of his home like a wolf, plotting his return to power, while his wife frets on the ground. Her private ritual is interrupted by the introduction of Ella Rentheim (Duncan), her sister who arrives unannounced. She loves Gunhild’s son Erhart (Rea) as her own, and having just received a terminal diagnosis, wants him all to herself. But this is not the first time the sisters have fought over a man. Ella and Borkman were lovers once, and she has supported his family through their financial crisis. Although she arrives to win the affections of his son, Ella quickly realises how unresolved her feelings for Borkman are: “You killed love in me,” she declares in Act Two. “You are guilty of killing your own soul and mine.”
Tom Pye’s set is an impression creation, all snow and faded grandeur. In Act One, the ceiling of the drawing room hangs at an ominous angle, and the entire set cleverly folds upward to make way for Borkman’s den. Although he tries to hide away from the world upstairs, Pye’s design points to this impossibility of this. The walls are incomplete and marbled with clouds, always permeable to inclement weather and surprise arrivals. On a reflective black floor, mounds of snow surround the isolated house, heaping up throughout the night. Beautifully realised by Joan Bergin, the women’s dresses frequently sweep the snow across the stage, and while this wouldn’t be a problem if fully embraced, efforts to maintain a clean border outside the domestic space inevitably fail, leaving the stage to look a little messy.
Where the production disappoints is in the direction. In particular, the pacing of the performance is incredibly slow. This is especially apparent in the first half which feels quite drawn out. Macdonald rarely constructs any images to anchor the drama, or moments to absorb us. Instead, the action is inclined to drift like the weather rather than palpably build to its tragic conclusion. In the final moments of the play, Gunhild twists her arm over her husband’s body to hold her sister’s hand in a striking tableau, but by then it’s too late.
Rickman’s performance focuses on Borkman’s pomposity, to the point of raising quite a few laughs. “The only person I harmed was myself,” he tells his wife with knowing arrogance, “When I say myself I include you and him.” However, his tendency to massage sounds in his mouth before releasing them as fully formed words threatens to derail the rhythm and sense of McGuinness’s text. His moment on the icy heath borders on the melodramatic, rather than the genuinely heart-felt. Although Gunhild is both a frustrated and frustrating character, Shaw manages to find comedy in her misery. While Ella talks of her passions more than any other character, Duncan’s performance is the most precise and even austere throughout. Had Shaw played Ella, one suspects she would have found more credible feeling in the role. Playing brazen Mrs Fanny Wilton, Belton’s cheeky performance throws light on the stifling dynamics of the Borkman family. Next to her and Erhart, everyone looks like a ghost.
While McGuinness’s fine text certainly holds egotistical banker Borkman up for examination, it also asks us to observe the two women who readily transfer their affections from him to his son. In wanting Erthart to redeem his father’s name, and restore the family’s reputation, they appear fatally attached to a defunct patriarchy. Understandable in 1896, perhaps, but confronting this psychology today prompts us to surmise that the greatest crime of all is not so much that Borkman destroyed lives, as Ella suggests, but that others let him do so. Although Gunhild tells Borkman that he is dead long before his actual demise, the sisters ultimately perceive that they too are mere shadows. If life exists, it does so beyond economic greed and restrictive familial ties. It’s where Mrs Wilton and Erhart escape to, perhaps. In McGuinness’s version of Ibsen’s play, it’s clear that John Gabriel Borkman still has much to say to us now, although this production lacks the confidence and clarity to best communicate this.
Fintan Walsh is ITM staff writer.