Sunday, January 30, 2011

John Gabriel Borkman - A Triple Acting Tour de Force

Review by Judd Hollander

Denial and the desperate need for redemption. These are some of the themes present in Henrik Ibsen's rarely-performed drama John Gabriel Borkman, now being given a top-notch revival by Ireland's Abbey Theatre (with a winning translation by Frank McGuinness) at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

The action takes place one snowy winter in an impressive mansion that also feels part mausoleum. This is the home of John Gabriel Borkman (Alan Rickman), a once powerful bank manager, beloved by all until he was convicted for embezzlement. He has not left the house since being released from prison eight years earlier, living on the second floor, (while his estranged wife Gunhild (Fiona Shaw) lives downstairs), waiting to be welcomed back into the community and the corridors of power.

On this particular night Gunhild's twin sister Ella (Lindsay Duncan) returns after an eight-year absence, there being a decades-old gulf between the two. Years ago, Ella and Borkman were lovers, but he deserted her to marry Gunhild and start himself on the road to success. Yet there remains an unspoken bond between Ella and Borkman, one which neither time nor distance can erase. Among the reasons for Ella's return is to win back the love of Erhart (Marty Rea), John and Gunhild's only son, who Ella raised during the years following the trial and who Gunhild sees as destined to restore the family name to respectability and honor. Erhart however may have other ideas as to how he wants his life to turn out.

The play is a fascinating tale about generational priorities, past decisions coming home to roost and how, if one wishes change, one must instigate it themselves, rather than simply waiting for it to happen, as Borkman and Gunhild have been doing for so long. (There's an interesting moment during a confrontation scene when Borkman and Erhart agree for a scant few seconds about the importance of taking control of their own lives).

The three major characters, all larger than life, all come icily alive with pent-up passion, desire and rage, thanks to three very exquisite performances. Rickman literally becomes the title character, a man obsessed with power seeing no wrong for what he has done. He also has such an insufferable ego, he would come across as completely ludicrous were the circumstances not so tragic. Duncan is superb as Ella, who blames John Gabriel for killing their love years ago and who has since clung to Erhart as the only warmth she has been able to find. Shaw is quite striking as Gunhild, who combines both pride and bitterness in the role, while making the character more than a stereotypical caricature by injecting a bit of self-deprecating humor into her lines, and thus making her feel more human.

Great credit must go to James Macdonald's able direction in bringing out the carefully timed bits of levity in an otherwise completely morose situation as the various characters strive for the chance to begin again. Rea works well as Erhart, a young man desperately trying to avoid being suffocated by his three parental figures and find his own happiness in the world. Cathy Belton adds some nice spice as Fanny Wilton, a hopeful realist (and divorcee) who is able to straddle the generational boundaries shown here using them to her own advantage. John Kavanagh is good in a tragicomic role as the aged Vilhelm, and Amy Molloy is nicely optimistically naive as Vilhelm's daughter Frida, who doesn't quiet yet realize the part she plays in what is happening.

Tom Pye's set is wonderfully spartan and spacious, mingled with pieces of a snowy exterior, all of which brilliantly gives the production the appropriate atmosphere. He's aided nicely by Ian Dickinson's excellent sound design and Jean Kalman's mood-inducing lighting. Costumes by Joan Bergin (mostly black and white) are nicely restrained and effective.

This production of John Gabriel Borkman is hauntingly brilliant and a play definitely not to be missed.

John Gabriel Borkman
Written by Henrik Ibsen
in a new version by Frank McGuinness
Directed by James Macdonald
Set design by Tom Pye
Lighting design by Jean Kalman
Costume design by Jean Bergin
Sound design by Ian Dickinson
American stage manager: Bonnie Panson
Producer: Abbey Theatre

Featuring: Fiona Shaw (Mrs. Gunhild Borkman), Joan Sheehy (Malene), Lindsay Duncan (Miss Ella Rentheim), Cathy Belton (Mrs. Fanny Wilson), Marty Rea (Erhart Borkman), Amy Molloy (Frida Foldal), Alan Rickman (John Gabriel Borkman), John Kavanagh (Vilhelm Foldal)

Brooklyn Academy of Music
Harvey Theater
651 Fulton Street

January 7th – February 5th
Tuesday-Friday at 7:30pm
Saturday at 2pm & 7:30pm
Sunday at 3pm

Tickets: 718-636-4100 or
Running Time: Two Hours, 25 Minutes

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