Adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s play John Gabriel Borkman depicts iced marriage in simmering portrait of status anxiety
Posted by  badge Boss on Oct 08, 2022 - 05:26PM
John Gabriel Borkman was originally written in 1896 play by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (Picture: Manuel Harlan)

It is to be hoped that anyone with power over other people’s lives and a deluded belief in their own infallibility (we all have our A list) will see themselves in Simon Russell Beale’s performance as disgraced banker John Gabriel Borkman.

In Lucinda Coxon’s updated version of Henrik Ibsen’s 1896 classic, Borkman’s Norwegian home is a modernist concrete bunker (excellent shadowy design by Anna Fleischle).

On the upper floor the former financier paces unseen like a ghost, his footsteps permeating the ceiling of the living room below where his estranged wife Gunhild (Clare Higgins) watches a flatscreen TV.

It has been like this since Borkman was released from prison eight years ago. The sentence was for massive fraud that drained clients’ money.

His grand plans for mining iron ore would have meant more riches for him, great progress for the country (he tells himself) and everyone would have got their money back if only the bastards hadn’t rumbled him. Oh how the wrong feel wronged.

In Nicholas Hytner’s production, the air is chilled as much by the iced marriage within the house as the winter landscape surrounding it. The play is much less popular than Ibsen’s biggest hit A Doll’s House but is still a simmering portrait of status anxiety.

The updated version sees Borkman’s home depicted as a concrete bunker (Picture: Manuel Harlan)

While the deluded Borkman waits for his accusers to come grovelling back, the embittered Gunhild plots to rehabilitate her reputation through their son Erhart (Sebastian De Souza).

Yet Erhart has other plans driven by a zest for both life and Fanny Wilton (Ony Uhiara), a lady of irresistible ill repute.

You can’t blame him. The choice is to be with Fanny or stay with the stultifying adults who raised him including his dying aunt Ella (Lia Williams), which is no choice at all.

The play was Ibsen’s penultimate work (Picture: Manuel Harlan)
Ibsen’s best known work is A Doll’s House (Picture: Manuel Harlan)

A sense of dread saturates the evening like falling dew. Yet it is also hugely enriching thanks to Higgins’s almost murderously embittered wife Gunhild and Beale’s portrait of remote hubris.

With a face framed by snowy hair and a beard, the Death Of Stalin star is a nordic God who has lost his domain.

And then there is Daisy Ou as the pianist daughter of Borkman’s sycophantic accountant who comforts Borkman with her playing and accompanies scene changes so beautifully that you never want them to end.

John Gabriel Borkman is playing at Bridge Theatre in London.