John Gabriel Borkman/BAM, a review
I have already reviewed this star-studded (Lindsay Duncan, Alan Rickman, Fiona Shaw) production in a previous post: indeed, I have seen it once at the Abbey in Dublin, where it premiered, and five times in New York at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Apart from the basking in the awesome presence of Alan Rickman, of whom I am a huge fan, it proved an illuminating theatre experience to see the same play multiple times (including previews), from different seats, on two different stages. As a consequence, there will be two reviews posted here. Read the first one if you are a normal person; read the second if you are a fan of any of the aforementioned actors, a theatre freak or both.
John Gabriel Borkman (Alan Rickman) is a former bank manager whose speculations with the bank’s deposits led him to prison and disgrace. Eight years after his release, he lives secluded in the first floor of his house, whilst 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, leading all three protagonists to fight for the loyalty of Borkman’s son, Erhart (Marty Rea).
JGB is a difficult play to stage and not without weaknesses, but James Macdonald, the director, makes the most of it. Tom Pye’s set in Dublin was strikingly beautiful and chilly, a most elegant introduction to the poetic language of a play Edvard Munch described as ‘the most powerful landscape in Scandinavian art’. The stage constraints of the Harvey Theatre prevented its transfer as is in New York. As a result, the set appears somewhat disjointed at first glance: pieces of Victorian furniture are scattered on a dark mirrored floor amongst mounds of immaculate snow. Yet it still conveys the impression of darkness and emptiness which Ibsen found fascinating in mines and that resonates throughout the play. The strictly elegant costumes designed by Joan Bergin also set the mood.
Fiona Shaw’s performance attracted critical praise, and with good cause. Gunhild is not a character a modern audience may easily love: she is hard, as Borkman himself describes her. She lives according to an ancient ideology of duty and honour — ‘people like us’, she states in a truly defining line, ‘have no time of happiness’ — and clings on the mad idea that her son must ‘perform his great mission’, clearing the family name, to avoid sinking into despair. Ms Shaw’s Gunhild cuts a striking figure, bent on dark vengeance and full of spiteful rage, walking the fine line between determination and hysteria, and eventually manages to capture sympathy, if not understanding.
Lindsay Duncan’s character, Ella, seems easier to play at first glance. She is the woman whose love was sacrificed on the altar of power, who wants Erhart to be happy and who, alone amongst the three major characters, believes in ‘the power of love’. For these very reasons I was extremely wary of the manner the role would be played. Ms Duncan does a superb job of it. She does not dwell on Ella’s most obvious characteristics — love, caring —, but brings out her similarities with Gunhild. Her Ella speaks of love and happiness without actually believing her words. Apart from a moment when her old devotion for Borkman briefly surfaces, an illusion quickly dismissed by Borkman himself, she has withdrawn from the world already.
Borkman himself is a fascinating character. Alan Rickman has been criticised for playing him in an ‘overtly muted’ manner (TheaterMania.com’s review); I cannot begin to understand what this means. Mr Rickman is very well known for his ability to convey intense emotion through a single glance or pause; he makes full use of his powers here. He brings out the Nietzschean grandeur of his character, his incredible capacity of self-delusion as well as his inherent childishness — who better than a child may look at a wide, desolate landscape buried under a blanket of snow and see a ‘land of dreams’, a ‘deep kingdom, inexhaustible, infinite’? Hearing Mr Rickman declaim his lines in that rich, modulated voice of his — ‘Down there it sings, the iron ore. When it’s freed. The hammer hits like the midnight bell striking. And it’s released — that’s why it sings, the iron, with joy — pure joy. It wants to see daylight and serve us all’ — is truly a tremendous experience.
As for the rest of the cast, John Kavanagh proves excellent as Vilhelm Foldal, Borkman’s only remaining friend and both a comic and deeply pathetic character. Marty Rea manages 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 it as if it were boulevard comedy the first times I saw the play, but considerably toned down the ham afterwards, to much better results.
There are some faults in this production. Some of them are inherent to play, or rather the way a modern audience reacts to it. Guffaws greeted most macho lines such as ‘if there are good women, we don’t know them’ or ‘when it comes down to it, one woman is replaceable by another’. More importantly, the third act sees all three major characters fighting over Erhart. The audience spends the major part of it laughing outright, even though one would be hard pressed to read anything funny in the text. Some viewers even thought the play to be a comedy. I will not blame them: it is hard for the modern viewer not to feel alien to this kind of ideas and plot development. The actor direction does not address the issue very firmly and the third act left me uneasy, even though I cannot see how it might be dealt with better.
My review has already grown quite long. Perhaps the best I can say about this production is that I have seen it six times. Each performance was good; two of them, both in NYC, were outstanding and rank amongst my most powerful artistic experiences. I am not a theatre person — more of a classical buff who frequently goes to concerts. The JGB production made me understand the power of live theatre. Go and see it if you can. It plays until the 7th of February at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.