Entertainment Going Out

Sunday 15 December 2019

Reivew: John Gabriel Borkman

Abbey Theatre


HERE'S a paradox: John Gabriel Borkman is a tragedy about a banker with delusions of grandeur.

When it previously played at the Abbey, in 1928, one reviewer saw Borkman as a "broken idealist" and "a man in whom we could all believe".

Frank McGuinness's new version, as directed by James MacDonald, makes passing reference to those ideals: Alan Rickman's Borkman is a man whose desperation for power may have led him to overstep the bounds of legality, landing him in jail, but he claims he sought that power in order to improve the common weal rather than for its own sake.

Rickman broods and stalks the empty halls of his once fine house (strikingly rendered by designer Tom Pye), going over and over the sequence of events that led to his downfall.

"The only person I harmed was myself," he protests -- and the audience laughs.

Instead of seeing a tragic figure whose flaw was excess of ambition, they see a pathetic one whose self-deception renders him ridiculous.

In a play that needs a Lear at its heart -- a man of nobility, even in his rage and his madness -- the audience finds a Willy Loman (the hero of Arthur Miller's 'Death of a Salesman'), a small man laid low by the everyday temptations of capitalism.

As a play about a corrupt banker, Ibsen's drama certainly has contemporary resonance. But the audience appears to read it as satire; moments of dramatic revelation tip over into farce, pathos into bathos.

Ibsen's final act is known to be difficult. But MacDonald bizarrely decides to stage much of it with Rickman awkwardly on his knees, practically in the wings, leaving the audience's attention to fall on two thin plumes of fake snow falling unconvincingly on the centre of the stage.

There is much to enjoy or admire in this Abbey production -- Fiona Shaw's wild-eyed, muttering banker's wife in particular.

But the overriding sense is of a production that has not yet found its rhythm. I suspect it might be worth returning to.

Irish Independent

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