Monday, January 24, 2011

Icy Landscape

Rickman, Duncan and Shaw in John Gabriel Borkman

John Gabriel Borkman

A play by Henrik Ibsen
A new version by Frank MacGuinness
Directed by James Macdonald
Starring Lindsay Duncan Alan Rickman, Fiona Shaw

BAM Harvey Theater
651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn
January 7-February 6, 2011

The second obscure Ibsen play to be staged in New York this season, the Abbey Theatre’s bleak production of John Gabriel Borkman follows the Pearl Theater’s solid mounting of Rosmersholm. Ibsen’s penultimate play continues to resonate because, like Shakespeare, his insights into human nature remain relevant.

That Ibsen’s unrepentant bank manager, the play’s title character, may bring to mind a certain recent criminal who also bilked people out of their hard-earned money is an added bonus, but there any similarity to Bernie Madoff ends. Borkman’s greed is complexly painted by Ibsen as part of a thirsting for power that has been part and parcel of his entire adult life. After serving several years in jail for his crimes (for which he still proclaims his innocence), he’s spent the past eight years in the dungeon-like upper level of the house he shares with his wife Gunhild (who has never forgiven him) and their son Erhart.

Returning to stir the pot is Gunhild’s twin sister Ella, Borkman’s mistress before realizing that marrying Gunhild would promote his own career far more. Ella, who lovingly cared for Erhart when his father was in prison, has returned to ask Erhart to take her name as if he is her son due to her recent discovery that she has little time left to live. Now an adult, his dalliance with the older divorcee Fanny Wilton has occupied his time, much to his mother‘s chagrin.

The seemingly irreparable conflicts among these people are shatteringly dramatized by Ibsen, even if their motivations aren’t always clearly or plausibly detailed. Frank MacGuinness’ adaptation straightforwardly maps out the constantly shifting relationships, and James Macdonald’s fluid direction keeps the drama flowing and ebbing at precise intervals.

Symbolism is present in the script, but Tom Pye’s set too obviously literalizes the chilliness that runs through the family estate with huge snow mounds that surround the minimal decor. The climactic storm’s arrival, which heralds Ibsen’s daring graft of realism and symbolism in his finale, is muted by the piles of the white stuff already there.

Thanks to his inimitably downcast voice, Alan Rickman gets the sadness of Borkman right, but missing is a believably human connection to wife, sister-in-law and son. It’s also off-putting that, in the play’s biggest dramatic scene, the director places Borkman on the back burner, so to speak, by seating Rickman behind Ella, Gunhild and Erhart as they fight over control of Erhart’s future. When Borkman then rises to physically assault Erhart (played by the intermittently impressive Marty Rea), it’s less shocking than simply puzzling.

Fiona Shaw plays Gunhild with her usual brio, punching up the dialogue in an audience-pleasing way, while Lindsay Duncan smartly underplays Ella as a proud but broken woman whose emotional failures have now become a fatal physical sickness. The power of Ibsen’s wintry landscape is mostly visible through Duncan’s brilliantly reticent performance.

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