28 September 2022
JOHN GABRIEL BORKMAN (Bridge Theatre) Review
Of all the Ibsen being staged, this play is the least favourite for a lot of people, myself included. At the core of it you have John Gabriel Borkman (a disgraced banker who, ever since his release from prison, had been brooding upstairs in a house that was once his), his wife Gunhild (brooding downstairs of the same house, intent on getting back at Borkman for the humiliation and hardship his trial had brought her), and her sister Ella (to whom Borkman transferred his house before his assets got ceased and who also took care of her nephew whilst the aforementioned couple dealt with the scandal and its aftermath).
The play takes place during one evening when Ella drops in for a visit, and old scores get dredged up and settled. The trio has individual bones to pick with each other, but the majority of the play is spent with each of them discussing and plotting how to get Borkman and Gunhild’s son (Ellas nephew) to do their bidding. They talk about this child as if he was a kid they could manipulate or sweet-talk or bribe, but he is a 23 year old man! Seriously… Not only that, he is also dating a woman twice his age and couldn’t give a hoot about what his mum/dad/aunt want.
The whole story of “I loved you, but you didn’t love me, though maybe you did in your own way, but you’d still done me wrong, so now I’m going to fight you for the child” stretched into almost 2 hours isn’t that enticing, and Lucinda Coxon’s translation did little to improve on the play’s dreary text. The only thing that rescues this production is the unbelievably amazing quality of the acting from the lead actors.
Clare Higgins was spectacular. I’d never seen her on stage before, and I was completely blown away. Ridiculous plot notwithstanding, she managed to make Gunhild truly believable and even sympathetic. Of all the characters, each of which is a little fake in their own way, she actually came off as the most genuine. Higgins was seething without being overly panto-like dramatic, and I think it went a long way to grounding the play. Lia Williams gave a quality performance I’ve grown accustomed to seeing from her. Although Ella is meant to be fragile in health, Williams managed to give her character a good amount of inner strength. Even though the text did a lot to undermine her (for example, when she screams “you killed love”, it’s difficult not to roll your eyes not the least because no one has ever said that to anyone in the history of time), her performance made me put out of my mind all the nonsense that was coming out of the Ella’s mouth and focus on the emotion of Williams’ output. Simon Russell Beale’s performance was reminiscent of the one he put in for Bach & Sons a few months back, and I thought there was a lot more tantrum throwing here than there needed to be. That said, Beale was largely spot on in portraying a man who was knocked down from the height of power not because he did anything wrong (in his mind, anyway), but because no one understood the sheer brilliance of what he was trying to achieve. The best chunks of Beale’s performance were the non-verbal ones, and it was largely his performance that was driving the audience to want to know how the story ends.
Sebastian De Souza, as the Borkman progeny, was rather nondescript, but that wasn’t down to his acting as much as the role not having anywhere for him to go. Other than one large outburst, there was no meat in it. Ony Uhiara, cast as his older lover, might as well not be present on stage: she has a few lines, but they don’t contribute much to the development of the play, so there isn’t anywhere to go with this character either. According to Wikipedia’s dates of birth Uhiara is about 15 years older than De Souza, but passport age isn’t everything because, on stage, she looks the same age as him. Given that she is meant to be twice his age, I fail to see why a considerably older actress wasn’t cast for this part. Michael Simkins plays Borkman’s friend Willhelm (the only one who still visits him), and it seems his only purpose in the play is to be the vehicle for us to see Borkman’s petulance and tit-for-tat outlook on life. Same as the other two, the character is paper thin, so there is nothing Simkins can do for it here.
An absolute revelation of the night was Daisy Ou, the Australian pianist who plays Frida (Willhelm’ daughter who comes to the house to play piano for Borkman). Ou is up on a tall platform most of the night playing piano, and she is incredible. I am going to have to look up if she’s doing some concerts in London, so I could hear her play again.
Nicholas Hytner’s direction seems to be relying on the lead trio to weave their magic into some kind of an atmosphere. We have a case of “Chekhov’s chest” here in lieu of a gun: if someone is clutching their chest for a few scenes, you better believe they’ll die of a heart attack later on. I was also annoyed at the choice of “Danse Macabre” as one of the pieces Ou played. Whilst I can see how it is fitting to the play, a very specific piece of it was taken as the theme tune for “Jonathan’s Creek” when the show came out in 1997, and that’s not some weird obscure show that most British people wouldn’t know. Au contraire. Trust me when I tell you that the last thing anyone wants when watching some quality dramatic acting is to have Jonathan Creek popping into their heads. This bit should’ve been cut/skipped so not to distract from the play. Seriously bad stylistic choice. There were also a few places where sightlines could’ve been vastly improved by having Borkman walk about rather than stand there stiff and still, blocking the action behind him.
Anna Fleischle’s dynamic set was really impressive (especially the piano), but the sofa(s) puzzled me (not sure if there were 2 sofas or the same one but rearranged for upstairs/downstairs scenes). The sofa(s) were so low, the actors looked very uncomfortable sitting in them; they looked like they were about to slide off any second. Was there a point to this?
On balance, I’m not impressed with the adaptation, the direction, or the production itself. However, it is definitely a “must see” for the three towering talents cast in it.
Cheapskate enjoyment value: £5 (for the leads).
Unexpected extra: Lia Willams’ character is ill, but it’s not spelled out with what. She was on stage in a leg brace that looked rather painful. Turns out Williams had suffered a torn Achilles tendon, so the brace isn’t there for the character, but to enable Williams to perform. That is some serious dedication to the arts! Wishing her a speedy recovery.