21 November 2010

John Gabriel Borkman at The Abbey: "You're as cold as ice, you're willing to sacrifice our love"*


Despite my deluded notions of seeing Beckett at The Gate (I blame the cough bottle and the antibiotics), I will forever be grateful to my friend Laina for booking tickets to see Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman at The Abbey, instead. One, because this play was actually running, and two, because the new version by Frank McGuinness --now finished in Dublin, but running in New York from January -- is simply spectacular.

We were captivated from the get-go: the starkly beautiful glacial stage-set elicited oohs and aahs as we settled ourselves (in the most flukily fabulous seats), with its mounds of wintery snow piled up against a grandly desolate mansion, where the characters hearts and lives seemed quite as frozen as the landscape outside.

Directed by James Macdonald, the acting was equally impressive -- as you’d expect, with Alan Rickman in the title role, Fiona Shaw as his wife Gunhild, Lindsay Duncan playing her twin sister Ella and the Jimmy-Carr-alike Marty Rea as the Borkmans’ son, Erhart. A nod must also go to the wickedly vivacious Mrs Wilton, played by Cathy Belton, who added a little light relief to the proceedings.

Not that the rest of it wasn’t funny, because it was in many places, and laugh-out-loud so, but in a very dark way – - especially given the story’s particular relevance and resonance in Ireland today.

The Abbey’s website sums up the plot much more eloquently than I could, so here:

“John Gabriel Borkman was once a great man. Wealthy, powerful, revered. He gave up love for success and was handsomely rewarded. 

But now, disgraced and destitute after a financial scandal and jail, the former director of the bank paces out each day, alone in an upstairs room, planning his comeback.

Downstairs his wife Gunhild lives a parallel life, plotting for their son to restore the family’s reputation. 

The claustrophobia of their lives is shattered once and for all with the arrival of Gunhild’s twin sister Ella, the woman whose love Borkman gave away…”

Much of the laughter stemmed from Borkman’s grandiose delusions, but the comic element is most pronounced in the scene where Gunhild and Ella battle it out for Erhard’s affections, with Borkman throwing in his tuppence-worth while they’re at it.

Don't be misled though; overall, this is dark, bleak and far from a barrel of laughs. But as I inelegantly whispered to the longsuffering Laina as the third act reached its conclusion, “For Ibsen, the ending’s not nearly as depressing as you’d think”. 

And it wasn’t; there’s a glimmer of hope sparked as the two sisters clasp hands and the curtain falls. Just a glimmer, mind, but it’s there the very same.  

I took a little bit of comfort from this -- but maybe that was just the effects of the cough bottle, too.

*Post title: Lyric from Foreigner, "Cold as ice".  

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