I’ve always been a sucker for a bit of Ibsen. Ever since we read Ghosts at school, I’ve always admired the grim grit of miserable 19th century Norwegian life that only Ibsen really seems to get. John Gabriel Borkman is one of his later plays, and was new to me, so I was curious to see if he’d cheered up at all in later life. Not a bit of it – I’m pleased to say. You don’t watch Ibsen for the lolz.
Nicholas Hytner brings us a brand new JGB, with a fresh translation by Charlotte Barslund then moulded into a new version by Lucinda Coxon. Comparing it with the original, there isn’t really a lot that’s changed. The role of Mrs Borkman’s maid has been dropped, which gives it a more contemporary feel; she has been replaced by Gunhild’s use of a mobile phone, poor thing, which I presume is the main reason why this new version is presented in the here and now, rather than 1896. Otherwise, I can’t see how presenting the play in a modern setting gives any other insights – more on some staging details later.
There’s no doubt that it’s a fascinating story with two central, timeless, themes. First – the humiliation of the fallen hero. The John Gabriel Borkman of the title was once a “great” man; a banker, respected, wealthy, influential – but a fraud, who swindled people left right and centre, including his own friends. Unsurprisingly, he was sent to prison for five years, to return home to the hostile and unforgiving arms of his wife, Gunhild. As a result, he has spent the last three years pacing around the upstairs room of their house, doing hardly anything, seeing hardly anyone. An unmitigated failure.
This deadlock is broken by the arrival of Gunhild’s sister, Ella, who owns the property as all Borkman’s assets were seized. Gunhild and Ella haven’t seen each other in eight years; Gunhild’s animosity towards her sister is palpable. It emerges that young Erhart Borkman has been seeing an older woman in the town, Fanny Wilton; this introduces the second timeless theme – the desire of the older generation to control the lives of the younger generation. Gunhild is an overprotective mother and Ella a besotted aunt; and when JGB decides he also wants to take Erhart away and start a new life together, there’s only one possible outcome for all this delusion.
Anna Fleischle has designed a very classy set. Cool greys and blues straight out of the Dulux colour chart suggest an atmospheric Oslo winter but also create poverty out of what was once obviously opulence. Very nicely done indeed. James Farncombe’s inventive lighting enhances the set design and brings additional drama to the theatrical highlights. In the loft sits a grand piano, on which young Frida Foldal plays Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre, the only remnant of artistry left in the building.
But there are a couple of odd staging choices. The sound effect representing JGB pacing upstairs at the beginning of the play doesn’t sound like footsteps at all – they are more like a muffled drum beat. The programme tells us the setting is “outside Oslo”, so why does Gunhild drink Barr’s cola? Nothing against Barr’s cola, of course, but one would have thought that the factories of Forfar are a long way from Oslo. Does she swap to Irn-Bru at the weekends? And we’re clearly in the 21st century, with mobile phones, a flat-screen tv and so on – so why is Ella dressed as an 1890s drudge?
There’s also an accidentally amusing moment when Fanny announces that Frida is joining Erhart and herself on the journey to Rome, saying “Frida’s waiting in the car”; when she’s clearly still upstairs putting away her sheet music. Perhaps the production is peppered with these deliberately disconcerting aspects as a kind of Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt; or maybe, as I suspect, I can’t help but think that a few things weren’t properly thought through. Another of my pet hates – Ibsen has left us a beautifully structured four act play but there’s still no interval – 1 hour 45 minutes all the way through. When you get to my age you really do value a break in between!
There’s no doubt that you witness an acting masterclass. Simon Russell Beale is superb as the disgraced Borkman. A complex, riveting performance, you can see the charisma in the character, his ability to fool both himself and others, his loss of focus and his absolute selfishness. Sir Simon uses every note of his terrific voice to try to galvanise others, to convince himself, and to show his total sense of failure. He’s brilliant. Clare Higgins is also superb as the strident Gunhild; a loud, complaining, stifling characterisation that works perfectly. Lia Williams is terrific as the quieter, more reasoning Ella, resolute against her ill-health and hoping against hope that Erhart might take pity on her – but also completely accepting and understanding the reality of his situation.
There’s excellent support from the rest of the cast, including the always entertaining Michael Simkins as JGB’s friend Vilhelm Foldal, putting up with being treated like dirt by everyone who knows him, but always with a little optimism held back for the future. Ony Uhiara’s Fanny Wilton is a woman who knows what she wants and is out to get it; I liked how her voice and costume set her apart from the traditional respectability of the other characters.
Enjoyable, and very well acted, but with some odd production decisions. Great to see that Ibsen isn’t going away any time soon!
Production photos by Manuel Harlan