Theatre review: John Gabriel Borkman / Donmar, London

Donmar, London

Ibsen's penultimate play is a magnificently spacious work of art. It can be seen as a ruthless self-portrait, a Marxist attack on capitalism, a Freudian study in twisted passion. But, in Michael Grandage's fine revival, I was constantly reminded of the Wagnerian echoes of a play which exposes the madness of sacrificing love for power.

Although staged in an intimate space, Grandage's production has an epic feel. Snow, in Peter McKintosh's design, falls constantly outside the bleak Borkman drawing room reminding us that Munch saw the play as "the mightiest winter landscape in Scandinavian art".

Borkman, the would-be giant of capitalism who was imprisoned for embezzlement, paces his spartan room like "a sick wolf in a cage". And downstairs Borkman's wife Gunhild and her twin sister Ella engage in a titanic battle for possession of the former's son.

But Grandage skilfully balances operatic intensity with savage irony. You see this in the great second act where Ian McDiarmid brings out the self-delusion of the incarcerated Borkman. Dreaming of a return to financial power, McDiarmid checks his appearance in a vanity mirror and assumes a Napoleonic pose the second he hears a knock at the door. Later, when his wife claims that his crime was not only an offence against himself, McDiarmid crushingly claims "you come under what I mean by myself". Richardson and Scofield may have imbued the last act with more wild poetry but McDiarmid captures the self-obsession of a man drunk on power.

This is Wagner's Wotan in a frock coat. And Penelope Wilton's Ella Rentheim brilliantly reminds us that she has paid the price for Borkman's elevation of wealth above the human heart. Her desolation when Borkman informs her that "one woman can be replaced by another" is unforgettable. Wilton also implies that Ella has turned her unwanted passion onto Borkman's son whose every move she devours. And the notion of women as the ultimate victims of male power-fantasies is confirmed by Deborah Findlay who turns Gunhild into a memorably embittered solitary.

Grandage's production risks lapsing into romantic melodrama, but it is always pulled back by the sharpness of its observation and the quality of its acting: not least from David Burke as Borkman's old clerk with his own mad dream of being a tragic playwright and from Rafe Spall as Borkman's son who is turned into an emotional shuttlecock. This is an excellent revival that reminds us Ibsen and Wagner were brothers under the skin in charting the insanity of power.

· Until April 14. Box office: 0870 060 6624


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

John Gabriel Borkman – review
Alan Rickman presents John Gabriel Borkman as a hollowed-out man who, as his wife Gunhild, played superbly by Fiona Shaw, says, could already be dead, writes Helen Meany

Helen Meany

15, Oct, 2010 @8:45 PM

Article image
The week in theatre: John Gabriel Borkman; Eureka Day – review
Simon Russell Beale is doubly commanding as Ibsen’s charismatic banker in a problem-raising revival, while a new anti-vax satire needs more than a shot of Helen Hunt’s star power

Susannah Clapp

02, Oct, 2022 @9:30 AM

Article image
John Gabriel Borkman review – Simon Russell Beale stunning as the shamed alpha-male banker
Turning to a lesser-staged work by Ibsen might seem risky, but Nicholas Hytner’s production is held together by some powerhouse performances

Arifa Akbar

30, Sep, 2022 @3:15 PM

John Gabriel Borkman, Greenwich Theatre, London

Greenwich Theatre, London

Michael Billington

08, Mar, 2003 @1:16 AM

Article image
A Life of Galileo – review

Brecht's masterpiece remains a spellbinding lesson in the responsibility of genius, says Michael Billington

Michael Billington

13, Feb, 2013 @4:52 PM

Article image
Back to the rivers of blood: Enoch Powell returns to a divided Britain
In 1968, MP Enoch Powell prophesied doom over mass immigration. Now, nearly 50 years later, Ian McDiarmid is playing him in new drama What Shadows. How does it feel to voice his notorious speech in Brexit Britain?

Mark Fisher

31, Oct, 2016 @7:00 AM

Article image
Plan your week’s theatre: top tickets
Lazarus and a female Julius Caesar come to King’s Cross, Spill festival starts in Ipswich, the Salvation Army delivers compassion in Cambridge, and Ian McDiarmid tackles Enoch Powell at Birmingham Rep

Lyn Gardner

24, Oct, 2016 @6:00 AM

Article image
The Lemon Table review – love and death with Julian Barnes
Ian McDiarmid wryly contemplates mortality in his engaging new adaptation of two Julian Barnes short stories

Clare Brennan

24, Oct, 2021 @10:00 AM

Article image
What to say about … Be Near Me
You haven't seen Ian McDiarmid's play – or read the Andrew O'Hagan novel from which it's adapted – but you can get by with a little help from the critics

Mark Espiner

29, Jan, 2009 @10:56 AM

Article image
Ian McDiarmid to tour show based on Julian Barnes stories about ageing
Actor will perform two tales with a musical theme featuring characters confronting their mortality with defiance

Chris Wiegand

10, Jun, 2021 @5:00 AM