John Gabriel Borkman review – Simon Russell Beale stunning as the shamed alpha-male banker

Bridge theatre, London
Turning to a lesser-staged work by Ibsen might seem risky, but Nicholas Hytner’s production is held together by some powerhouse performances

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.

Clare Higgins, Sebastian de Souza and Lia Williams.
Locked in their own prisons … Clare Higgins, Sebastian de Souza and Lia Williams. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

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.


Arifa Akbar

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

Theatre review: John Gabriel Borkman / Donmar, London

Ibsen's penultimate play is a magnificently spacious work of art - even in the tiny Donmar, finds Michael Billington.

Michael Billington

21, Feb, 2007 @11:06 AM

Article image
Two Ladies review – presidents’ wives turn to violence
Zoë Wanamaker and Zrinka Cvitešić attempt to seize power at a summit meeting in Nancy Harris’s provocative play

Michael Billington

25, Sep, 2019 @9:00 PM

Article image
Beat the Devil review – righteous rage of David Hare's corona nightmare
In the return of live indoor theatre, Ralph Fiennes delivers the playwright’s fury at the government’s response to the virus – and his despair when he catches it himself

Arifa Akbar

30, Aug, 2020 @11:44 AM

Article image
Straight Line Crazy review – Ralph Fiennes enthrals as the man who shaped New York
Fiennes heads an electrifying cast in David Hare’s dynamic portrait of Robert Moses, an aggressive yet visionary urban planner who refused to back down

Mark Lawson

24, Mar, 2022 @12:01 AM

Article image
Bach & Sons review – study of the man and his music hits a flat note
Simon Russell Beale stars in a visually impressive production of Nina Raine’s play that never quite gets off the ground

Arifa Akbar

29, Jun, 2021 @11:01 PM

Article image
Guys and Dolls review – Nicholas Hytner’s gamble pays off
This immersive production of the New York musical has a bold design, superb singing and chemistry between its stars

Arifa Akbar

15, Mar, 2023 @12:01 AM

Article image
A Number review – Caryl Churchill's clone fable counts cost of progress
Roger Allam plays a father with multiple versions of the same son in a drama that feels like an early noughties Black Mirror

Arifa Akbar

19, Feb, 2020 @10:00 PM

Article image
Allelujah! review – Alan Bennett's hospital drama is full of quiet anger
Patients’ singalongs, Arlene Phillips’s choreography and Bennett’s stinging wit light up a state-of-the-nation play set on a geriatric ward

Michael Billington

18, Jul, 2018 @9:00 PM