Everything is ice-cold on stage at BAM’s Harvey Theater, where Frank McGuinness’s fine new adaptation of Ibsen’s penultimate play, John Gabriel Borkman, is currently playing with a red-hot cast of actors. With the stage awash in snow drifts, a stovepipe climbing high up to the rafters (scenic design is by Tom Pye), the central trio of characters here seem as isolated as can be, but old wounds are never easily healed, and in the small community in which they live, their good names have been forever tarnished.
The culprit responsible for ruining the Borkmans is the titular character, John Gabriel. Though his family refers to him relentlessly by his former title, “the bank manager” has spent the last fifteen-plus years of his life behind bars and, subsequently, in seclusion in the great hall of the Borkman home while his wife listens to his footsteps from below. As the play begins, Mrs. Borkman is visited by her twin sister, Ella Rentheim, who has come in a state of grave illness on a doomed mission – to win back Mrs. Borkman’s son Erhart, whom she cared for for many years during the family’s troubles, and, furthermore, to bestow upon him the name of Rentheim.
Though Ella, never a mother herself, thinks her mission reasonable, Mrs. Borkman relies on Erhart to restore the family name. As the final Rentheim in her family line, Ella laments the fact that she was never a Borkman herself, expounding that “names bind us more than you think.” In her youth, she was John Gabriel’s lover, but he gave her away to a bank official to obtain his title, and her own weakness to resist returning to his arms was the cause of his downfall when the jealous bank official, a great friend of John Gabriel’s, betrayed him by turning over their correspondence.
To enact this rather somber late-life love triangle requires three fine actors – in the case of this production, they are Alan Rickman as John Gabriel, Fiona Shaw as Mrs. Gunhild Borkman, and Lindsay Duncan as Ella Rentheim. Rickman, whose character is the bedrock of the production, presents a steely, bumbling Borkman. His former glory is consistently evident, but his weaknesses increasingly prevail as he trips over his words and retreats into a wintry storm never to return indoors.
Duncan is the other standout of this fine production. Duncan’s gaunt, pale appearance lends an air of lost tenderness to the character of Ella, who is crystalline clear in her accusations. “You killed love in me,” she tells Borkman, and later, “You are guilty of killing your own soul and mine.” Despite her desire for recompense, however, it is the loss of love that drives her, and the warmth of her younger days resurfaces in her compassion toward Erhart, whom she commands, “Live your happy life – be as happy as you can be.”
Though Shaw is similarly committed in the role of Mrs. Borkman, she seems somewhat less strong than her costars, possibly due to the humor she adds to a rather somber role. Particularly in the play’s third act, in which the two twin sisters vie for Erhart’s affections, Shaw seems to transform cutting lines into easy quips when a deeper, more serious approach may have yielded a more resonant performance. Nevertheless, it’s always a pleasure to see Shaw take on a serious role, and her interpretation is for the most part a satisfying one.
Overall, this fine production is a worthwhile one to experience for anyone with an affinity for Ibsen’s brand of dramatic probing. Though John Gabriel Borkman is no exception to his general trend – and the general trend of its era – of using characters as signposts for psychological states of being, the stellar cast on display here eases the taxing intellectualism that can make-or-break an Ibsen experience and makes this particular production well worth seeing.