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Cold and ice have non-speaking parts in the English Touring Theatre’s production of Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman at Greenwich Theatre. Against a backdrop of falling snow and a leafless birch tree, in a house chilly with tragedy, John Gabriel Borkman, his wife Gunhild and her twin sister Ella warm themselves on self-deluding dreams. In the end it is the cold, and a ‘hand of ice’ clutching at his heart, which kills John Gabriel.
There is little to warm the audience, besides some shafts of gallows humour from the witheringly bitter Mrs Borkman, and the haplessness of the amiable but pathetic bank clerk, Foldal. But the laughter is uneasy in this unremitting Nordic gloom.
The play is a case study in obsession, egotism and deceit in which the central characters cling to their false hopes and the vanity of their aspirations, except perhaps love. John Gabriel, a fallen angel of finance, has traded his love for Ella for his dream of becoming a king of industry, but has still spent eight years in prison, and another eight pacing his room, readying himself for his return to greatness. Obsessed with their victimisation, his wife Gunhild and her twin, Ella, put their hopes in his son Erhart, as the redeemer of the family’s honour or the preserver of a surname. But Erhart is infatuated with the coquette Mrs Wilton, who sees their relationship as decidedly temporary. Foldal (a clerk from the bank which crashed due to Borkman’s recklessness) has written a play which will never be produced, and the daughter who is his brightest hope drives over his foot in a sleigh as she leaves him, and herself is badly used by Mrs Wilton. Only Ella speaks up for love, and she has different priorities now. Borkman is in love, but with his vision of satanic mills.
Among the uniformly excellent performances, Gillian Barge is imperious as the proud Gunhild Borkman, more than once raising her hand in priest-like denunciation, a gesture later echoed by Linda Bassett as her twin, in a performance of great subtlety. And as John Gabriel, Michael Pennington gives us the passion, self-absorption and complexity of a driven but, ultimately, very ordinary man. The production is a challenging but enthralling and affecting experience.
John Gabriel Borkman was directed by Stephen Unwin and opened at Greenwich Theatre on 6th March as part of a tour for English Touring Theatre.
© Ian Lees
Originally published on R&V on 08-03-03
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“Gunhild and her twin sister Ella warm themselves on self-deluding dreams.” I love that sentence!
It’s a good one, isn’t it! Wish it was mine.