John Gabriel Borkman

Published April 17, 2008

Bare trees stand like sentries and snow falls relentlessly outside the Borkmans’ house. Peter McKintosh’s set conjures the cold, stark atmosphere of Norway in winter, while inside the house, the picture is no warmer. Dimly lit by lamps, the sparsely furnished room where Gunhild Borkman resides is anything but homely. Despite the frosty scene, the Donmar was toasty warm when Caroline Bishop attended the press night of David Eldridge’s version of Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman last night…

Gunhild (Deborah Findlay) is a woman who has spent the last 15 years or so resenting her husband, John Gabriel, who disgraced the family by using his position as director of a bank to commit fraud and lose a lot of people a lot of money. Jailed for five years, he has spent the eight years since his release alone in a bedroom in the same house as Gunhild, though they never speak. While he paces up and down in self-imposed solitude above, the bitter, self-righteous Gunhild listens and fumes down below, imprisoned by her own inability to lift her grudge. Her only hope is that son Erhart (Rafe Spall) will redeem the family name and restore her life to its former glory.

More bitterness is fuelled in Gunhild when her twin sister Ella (Penelope Wilton) pays an unexpected visit, having not seen her sibling in years. Gunhild resents her sister for having helped her out when the scandal broke – including taking in Erhart as if he were her own son. Ella is a lonely, ill spinster whose motives for aiding her sister in her hour of need were not altogether selfless.

It is a depressing scene where bitterness festers like a disease. Given this, and the ominous pacing above, you would expect John Gabriel, the cause of all this wrought emotion, to be a dark, brooding character, tormented by his actions. But Ian McDiarmid’s John Gabriel is a proud, pompous man with something of a cynical sense of humour. Failing to recognise the extent of the damage his actions caused, and deluded that he could make a successful return to the bank, his eight years in solitude seem strangely out of character.

With family like this, it is no wonder that Erhart Borkman, dragged home from a party to be confronted by his aunt and mother fighting over him and his father plotting a future he doesn’t want, decides to run for the hills.

Ibsen’s tale may be dark and depressing, but Michael Grandage’s production has some surprising moments of humour too, from McDiarmid’s Borkman and David Burke’s Vilhelm Foldal; while Lolita Chakrabarti’s Mrs Wilton is an opulent, forthright plotter whose brazenness is a welcome contrast to the drab, highly strung pair of sisters.

As John Gabriel makes his own break for freedom, you understand why Erhart and Wilton are only too keen to leave behind the wilds of freezing Norway for brighter, and warmer, climes…

CB