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John Gabriel Borkman/Dublin, a review

15 novembre 2010

Chers lecteurs, cet article n’a strictement rien à voir avec notre production habituelle. Nous vous prions de nous excuser pour cette interruption momentanée de la Force.


On Monday Nov 8th, I went to see John Gabriel Borkman at the Abbey in Dublin. First, I must say my knowledge of theatre is rather limited. I’ve studied literature at Uni (roughly speaking, you don’t want me to enter the intricacies of the French higher education system), but I’ve only ever seen French classical plays on the stage. Plus I had never read any Ibsen before JGB — not even A Doll’s House.

As English isn’t my native language, I wanted to prepare and read the play beforehand. I laid hand on William Archer’s 1907 translation and immediately fell in love with the work. John Gabriel Borkman (Alan Rickman) is a former bank manager whose speculations with the bank’s deposits led to prison, disgrace and destitution. Eight years after his liberation, he lives secluded in the first floor of his house, while on the ground floor his wife (Fiona Shaw), who refuses to have anything to do with him, schemes the restoration of the family name. Drama unfolds with the arrival of her twin sister (Lindsay Duncan), whose love Borkman renounced for the sake of his business projects, as all three protagonists fight for the loyalty of Borkman’s son, Erhart (Marty Rea).

The Abbey Theatre, the National Theatre of Ireland

Now for the performance. Tom Pye’s set is stunningly beautiful; costumes, sound and lighting are equally gorgeous, and the set-change at the end of the first act is nothing short of spectacular.

Contrary to most viewers, I failed to be completely overwhelmed with Fiona Shaw’s interpretation of Gunhild Borkman. She overacted a bit in my opinion and was even histrionic at times, particularly in the first act. Ibsen’s scenic indications at the beginning of the play describe her as stiff and rigid, which is not how Ms Shaw played her. She actually howls to demonstrate Gunhild’s view that Borkman is prowling upstairs like a sick, caged wolf. The fault may lie with James Macdonald’s direction, though. There was substantially less ham in the other acts, or at least the script called for more emotion from Gunhild. Ms Shaw proved very convincing at expressing weariness, frustration, repressed rage and a certain creepiness.

Alan Rickman was my main (all right, sole) reason of seeing the play. I was a tad disappointed by his performance. First, I had some trouble actually hearing him, which is more than surprising from, well, him. His voice seemed somewhat muffled. My seat, L23, wasn’t very close to the stage, but I had no problem with the other actors’ voice projection. On the other hand, Mr Rickman has to murmur in his last scene and managed impressively to whisper ‘I love you’ both very softly and distinctly. More importantly, I felt Mr Rickman’s Borkman lacked charisma, which is more than surprising, etc. I understand Borkman as a powerful and tragic character, almost Nietzschean in his ruthless drive to power and in his belief in destiny far beyond love and personal happiness. Mr Rickman played very well his self-delusion, narcissism and arrogance, but didn’t show much the greatness in his character. Then again, some reviewers and even the Brooklyn Academy of Music present Borkman as a greedy, pompous and cold-hearted fool. So I may be misguided. Two other niggles, mostly with the actors’ direction — first, Mr Rickman spent the best part of the play fidgeting in his right pocket with coins (?), but nothing ever came out of it. It sucked. To quote Chekhov, ‘one must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.’ Second, James MacDonald staged most of the fourth act with Mr Rickman on his knees, which raises the question: why?

Lindsay Duncan blew my socks off as Ella, managing to convey intense emotion through an icy demeanour — I’m a complete sucker for this type of character. During the second act, Ella realizes Borkman renounced their mutual love to become manager of the bank. I was very much impressed by the passion Ms Duncan expressed when shouting ‘criminal!’ at Mr Rickman while remaining seated. I loved the interaction between the passionate sister turned Ice Queen and the austere one driven to rage, both by Borkman’s doing.

As for the rest of the cast, John Kavanagh proved very good as Vilhelm Foldal, Borkman’s only remaining friend and both a comic and pathetic character. Marty Rea managed a convincing naïve and frustrated Erhart Borkman — a young man shunning familial duty for love and the pursuit of happiness. Cathy Belton, in the role of the pretty divorcee neighbour with whom Erhart plans to elope, played as if it were boulevard comedy and seemed completely off-key to me.

What troubled me most in the performance was the laughing. I admit the play has dark comic moments. Some misogynistic lines such as  ‘If there are good women, we don’t know them’ cannot be heard now without eliciting laughter or boos. The audience, however, laughed very often and at the oddest moments. Mr Macdonald’s direction plays a part in this. For instance, Borkman ends up physically wrestling with his son in the middle of the third act; the scene is pure panto, which makes the transition a bit abrupt with the pathos of the fourth act. Laughs during Borkman’s long (and deeply moving) death scene may come from the memory of other deaths played by Mr Rickman before, specifically the hilarious one in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Finally, the subject of the play may ring a bell in a depression-struck country and encourage the Irish audience to see it as a satire. Yet for the life of me I don’t understand why some reviewers are bent on comparing Bernie Madoff and JGB: I don’t see anything in the text supporting the notion that Borkman was involved in a Ponzi scheme. Ibsen stays rather vague on this issue, but it seems like a good old breach of trust to me.

This review may give the impression that I was less than happy with the performance. Such is not the case. I did have some trouble getting into it due to the frequent laughter, but it was riveting. The fourth act in particular was absolutely breathtaking. Even if I don’t agree with all interpretations, the play featured such a staggering amount of fine acting I’m surprised the theatre didn’t collapse under its own weight. I would very much have liked to see it again, but the bad planning of my stay in Dublin prevented it. So it will have to wait until January 2011, when the play moves to New York’s BAM. I firmly intend to be there.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. 23 janvier 2011 05:34

    I envy your ability to write such a good review, thank you for it. I was only able to produce fangirl squees after seeing it the first couple of times. 🙂

    The strange thing about the out-of place laughter though, it was very much so when I was first watching the play, be ceased to feel that much by the fourth today. At least there were never any during the death scene that I heard… (It is my first time going to the theatre again and again and again for the same play, and I love how different it always is.)

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