Reviving a lesser-staged Ibsen play might be deemed high risk in times when many venues are cleaving to safe programming choices. Director Nicholas Hytner should be commended for it, though there is the insurance policy of three formidable actors at its heart.
The gamble half pays off. A story about the shamed titular banker and narcissist who cannot face up to his crimes, it is riveting in parts but also shows its age and plot contrivances despite the best efforts of Lucinda Coxon’s modern-day adaptation.
What holds it together is its powerhouse performances from Clare Higgins, Lia Williams and most magnetically of all, Simon Russell Beale as the former banker who has been stripped of all his wealth and power. Having served a jail term for “banking crimes” he lives with his estranged wife, Gunhild (Higgins), and spends his days dreaming of a comeback.
Russell Beale glitters with pathological narcissism yet never flattens into one-dimensional monstrousness. A delusional egotist who blames others for his fall (“there are different rules for exceptional people”), he bears obvious resonances to high-profile men who have fallen hubristically from a great height (at No 10, the White House and beyond). It is a penetrating character study of highly flammable, alpha masculinity and the play keenly dramatises its destructive effect on the family unit – especially on its women. Gunhild plots her own return to high social standing and falls into competition with her sister, Ella (Williams), whose backstory gives the Borkmans’ unhappy marriage the shape of a toxic love triangle.
Everyone in the cast, it seems, is either locked in their own prison or bidding for escape. Borkman stalks his room as if he were still pacing a cell and Anna Fleischle’s stage design, made of prison grey concrete and brutalist edges, adds to the confinement.
Its modern setting reveals how Ibsen’s women were both before their time and trapped in it, and we also see the roles that women with publicly shamed men are still forced to take. Gunhild is played by Higgins with outward marital disdain but a deeper buried, painful love. She projects her dreams on to her son, Erhart, as a way of escaping the shame that her husband has brought on her. Williams is just as strong as the spurned woman who has never stopped loving Borkman but loathes him too for trading in their love in order to further his selfish ambition. Coxon’s script sends up Borkman’s misogyny well but it is harder to navigate the fact that every woman in the play is pitted against each other over the same undeserving men.
The modernised language lays bare some of the play’s odd lines and tricky tonal shifts, too – it swings from despairing humour to naturalistic family drama and then to its convulsive last moments which brings intimations of King Lear’s heath scene. All the characters outside the central, twisted love triangle seem paper-thin, from the callow Erhart (Sebastian de Souza) to his older lover, Fanny Wilton (Ony Uhiara), who, with her loose London vowels and fur-lined coat, seems discomfortingly exoticised.
Yet, at one hour and 45 minutes, played straight through, it feels longer than that in the best possible sense – solid, meaty, without the typically hurtling speed of a play of its duration. While it comes with plotlines and intertwined fates in whose turns we do not always believe enough, it is absolutely worth seeing for its ideas, intensity and showmanship. This is ultimately a production which reminds us of the exciting potential for theatre to turn the old inside out, and make new, if it dares to.
• At the Bridge theatre, London, until 26 November.