John Gabriel Borkman – review

Abbey, Dublin

The protestations of Ibsen's disgraced banker were greeted by laughs from the audience on opening night, but in Frank McGuinness's new version of the play contemporary echoes are not allowed to overwhelm the central drama. The period setting anchors us in Ibsen's world, where men take actions and women suffer their consequences.

Alan Rickman's John Gabriel Borkman has served a sentence for embezzlement but, returning home, is still imprisoned. He paces the upper storey while his wife Gunhild (Fiona Shaw), listening nightly to his footsteps, is also incarcerated.

Against mounds of snow, Tom Pye's miniature domestic interior reflects the text's wintry imagery beautifully. James Macdonald's production emphasises the inertia of this household, as the frozen landscape extends to the hearts of husband and wife, and to Gunhild's sister Ella. Once loved by Borkman, she was betrayed by him as he pursued his ambitions. Her arrival sets in train a battle between the sisters over Borkman's son, Erhart, to whom they have transferred what is left of their feelings.

The verbal duel between Shaw and Lindsay Duncan, as Ella, is riveting; one ironic and twitchy, the other glacially dignified. Rickman, meanwhile, presents a hollowed-out man, who could, as Gunhild says, already be dead. Unrepentant and vain, he waits to be vindicated. Rickman gives him chilling grandeur as he refuses to acknowledge the failure that nevertheless haunts him, denying the possibility of change.

Even these superb actors can't make the third act seem anything other than melodramatic. Each tries to hold on to a future with Erhart, while the young man makes his bid for freedom. The pace becomes laborious, and as Borkman walks into the snow, it seems histrionic rather than tragic. Only in the final moment, as the sisters clasp hands above his body, is there an eloquent image. It seems a belated acknowledgement of their complicity in his fate, leaving them as "two shadows over a dead man".

Until 20 November. Box office: (353) 1 8787222.


Helen Meany

The GuardianTramp

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