Written in 1896, Ibsen’s penultimate work is a powerfully poetic unmasking of the unacceptable face of capitalism. This new version by David Eldridge, directed by Michael Grandage, is not quite as successful as their superb collaboration on The Wild Duck at the Donmar last year, and lacks the full tragic force of the Richard Eyre/Paul Scofield production at the National ten years ago, but it still delivers compellingly intense theatre.
Eldridge’s compact version keeps the dramatic momentum up, albeit rather hurrying along characters’ emotional evolution, while Grandage’s staging, if occasionally slipping into melodrama, is impressively atmospheric.
Like Ibsen’s first prose play The Pillars of Society (staged last year at the Lyttleton), John Gabriel Borkman centres on a power-hungry entrepreneur who is prepared to break the law and ride roughshod over the feelings of two sisters. The banker Borkman has served five years in prison for embezzlement, which brought devastating consequences for his clients and his family. Though he has been back at home for eight years, he and his wife Gunhild live completely separate lives in the mansion now owned by her estranged twin sister Ella, who brought up Gunhild’s son Erhart after the bankruptcy of Borkman, whom she used to love.
Borkman wants Erhart to help him rebuild his career, Gunhild for him to restore the family name and Ella for him to be her companion in the last months of her terminal illness. But Erhart does not want to be weighed down by the demands of the older generation, and is determined to pursue his own happiness in a mnage trois involving a rich divorcee and the young musical daughter of his father’s ex-clerk.
Peter McKintosh’s wintry landscape design and Adam Cork’s highly effective sound design admirably set the tone of the play. As snow falls amid the bare birch trees outside the dark interiors of the house, we can hear the wind howling, distant sleigh bells and the footsteps of Borkman pacing upstairs in his shuttered room, like a caged wolf. The sombre setting reflects the gloomy spirits and icy hearts of the protagonists, who are frozen in time, though underneath a current of passion runs, ready to break through in anger, bitterness and frustrated love.
Ibsen makes it clear that Borkman is guilty of not just a financial but an emotional crime, not only using clients’ funds illegally but also abusing the human heart. Though he and Ella loved each other when young, he married Gunhild to further his career, so that eventually his elevation of money above love corrupts the lives of all three of them.
The son of a miner, and a self-made millionaire, Borkman dreamt and still dreams of shaping the future of the country as a politician and industrialist. As a visionary megalomaniac, suffering from delusions of grandeur, he sees himself as a Napoleon of business. A man in denial, he doesn’t believe he’s done anything wrong and has been waiting for people to beg him to come back to his old position of power. But as he finally ventures outside the house (onto a snowy white carpet), followed by the two sisters, Borkman finds that he can’t escape the prison of his own mind.
Ian McDiarmid may not quite evoke the ruined grandeur of a fallen colossus of capitalism, but his idiosyncratic persona makes the most of moments of sardonic humour and his delusional character is highly convincing, especially later when we see him physically and mentally frail with wild white hair like Lear on the heath.
Penelope Wilton makes an affecting Ella: unmarried and childless, and now sick, she desperately wants Erhart to be a substitute for his father but is prepared to sacrifice her own happiness for his. Deborah Findlay’s possessively manipulative Gunhild – a wickedly funny performance – on the other hand, uses every kind of emotional blackmail on her son.
Rafe Spall’s Erhart seems rather lightweight in comparison his hedonistic plans to break free from his family’s chains would have stronger dramatic impact if he gave more of an impression that the ghosts of the past were driving him to escape southward.