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Stars set stage alight in Ibsen's dark tale

GREAT drama is frequently destroyed by star-studded performances, usually because self-absorption in the acting becomes the end rather than the means.

By that standard, Frank McGuinness's new version of Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman for the Abbey should be an unmitigated disaster, with three of the English-speaking world's most shining theatrical lights battling it out on stage. Instead, director James McDonald has produced a piece of theatre so delicately magnificent it deserves to (and hopefully will) be remembered for generations.

The story of a ruined bank manager who embezzled funds only to have his crime reported by his closest confidante in revenge, as the confidante sees it, for having prevented the manager's beautiful sister-in-law accepting a proposal of marriage from him, has obvious resonance for our time.

But this is no cheap or trite allegory. McGuinness has given us Ibsen's monumental work as it was originally written: an examination of the nature of sexual passion played out against the driving obsession of the miner turned banker flying, Icarus-like, too close to the sun of ambitious greed.

Except that John Gabriel Borkman doesn't fall to earth and a merciful death; the melted wax of his wings drags him into a pit alive with the serpents of hopelessness and memory.

His lost love Ella returns in the hope of re-claiming his son, Erhart, who she has fostered in boyhood and wants to make her heir before her imminent death; his implacable wife, Ella's twin sister, rages on her own on the floor of the family estate where they live in separate and hate-fuelled isolation, determined that the young man will re-claim the honour of the family name, and wipe out the memory of his father forever.

And Borkman, eight years after being released from prison, lives in a world of delusion: isolated from everyone except his old clerk's young daughter who comes to play the piano, and the clerk himself, who longs to be a writer and feeds Borkman's mania for a return to power in return for nuts of encouragement, he awaits rehabilitation in the world's eyes.

In Ibsen's stern world there is only one solution: young Erhart chooses freedom and a future, unconsciously freeing them all from their self-imposed chains. And John Gabriel Borkman can finally sleep.

Alan Rickman is breathtaking as Borkman, a man lost to human contact in pursuit of ugly fantasy. Fiona Shaw is Gunhild, the wife whose core he has encased in shrivelled steel in a performance that lays bare the layers of blood and bone inside the steel. And Lindsay Duncan is Ella, the unlucky emotional gambler who has staked everything, and through constant loss has learned to accept almost with equanimity.

There are faults: John Kavanagh as the pathetic clerk gives the impression of having decided to interpret the text differently from his fellow cast members, and Lindsay Duncan has quite a lot of projection problems.

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But apart from that, with Marty Rea as the desperate Erhart, Cathy Belton as his amused and knowing paramour, Amy Molloy as young Frida and Joan Sheehy as the maid, this is a truly memorable production, with the technical credits as triumphant as the concept and acting: Tom Pye's icily Nordic set, Joan Bergin's costumes, Jean Kalman's almost ethereal lighting and Ian Dickinson's sound.


ENRON, one of the world's largest energy companies, filed for bankruptcy in December 2001. Before that, its founder and chairman Kenneth Lay and its CEO Jeff Skilling, who believed that "all money is debt", had almost singlehandedly taken over the energy market in the United States, with considerable help from George W Bush when he was Governor of Texas.

They did it with the assistance of bankers Lehmann Brothers (a name that was to become even more infamous in later years) and accountants Arthur Andersen, by creating hundreds of companies into which they moved their massive debts, disguising them as profits . . . their own personal Nama, as it were. This was the brainchild of the financial controller of the company, Andy Fastow.

When the company crashed, largely thanks to investigative journalism on the part of Fortune magazine, 21,000 employees in Enron's Houston headquarters were thrown out of their jobs at hours' notice with severance packages of a couple of thousand dollars. Their pension fund of more than a billion dollars was wiped out, as were their personal life savings, which Lay and Skilling had conned them into investing in the company stock. All of the non-company shareholders were also wiped out. Corporate America said, "never again". And the international corporate world looked on and said, "never again". Henceforward, strict regulation would be the order of the day, nationally and internationally. Hmm? That was nine years ago.

Lay and Skilling remained defiantly unapologetic. The US courts saw things differently. Skilling is currently serving a 24-year jail sentence handed down in 2006 for fraud and conspiracy. Lay had been facing more than 40 years when he died of a heart attack. Their patsy, Andy Fastow, received a 10-year sentence. Accountants Arthur Andersen were permanently barred from auditing, and the company collapsed. (Thirty thousand people lost their jobs as a result.) Lesson: in America, justice is truly as blind as it is meant to be: the people who are really responsible take the fall, not their minions.

An English writer, Lucy Prebble, has written a musical play, Enron, about these events, and it has been given a co-production by Headline, Chichester, and the Royal Court, a marker of the British theatrical establishment's enthusiasm for the piece. It was extremely successful in the UK, less so in its US run. And that must be laid at the door of the piece's superficiality. American audiences would have been familiar with the labyrinthine history of Enron and its gargantuan fraud, and would justifiably have found the play slight in the extreme.

The production came to the Gaiety for the Theatre Festival, and received a polite reaction. Its slick presentation could not be faulted, but it's doubtful if it added to the knowledge of corporate fraud in either the general or the particular, and it certainly did not fall into the category of earth-shattering drama.

Which is a pity, since it depicts events that were spectacularly earth-shattering in financial terms, and should have led to a world financial revolution. That they did not is one of the reasons why Ireland may shortly fall into the hands of the International Monetary Fund.


WITH text by Jan Klata and Sebastian Majewski and direction by the former, The Danton Case was part of the Polish programme in the festival, and was entirely unsuitable for any audience not fluent in Polish. The surtitles were so placed that if you read them, you couldn't look at the stage, and they were obviously out of synch with the dialogue for much of the time, making a nonsense of the interminable debates that are the main component of the piece.

Purporting to be an account of the downfall of Danton, the President of the French Revolution's Committee of Public Safety and the man reputed to have led the popular march on the Tuileries Palace which effectively dethroned the King, only to fall foul of Robespierre, the man who later established what became known as the Terror after Danton's execution, The Danton Case is effectively a string of lectures and debates on the nature of revolution, terror, betrayal, the cupidity of the mob, and the unpredictability of democracy. You can picture them, unedited, sitting very easily in gloomy long-winded conversations between Lenin and Trotsky in a later century.

Perhaps in recognition of this lack of oomph, the piece is interspersed with seemingly endless sequences of people leaping in and out of packing cases, mostly to copulate enthusiastically across the genders.

Marianne, the symbol of the revolution, wanders around, hiccuping, and the piece ends with a fella stripping down to his knickers and doing yoga. Finally, I'm afraid, most of the acting is unbelievably hammy.

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