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English Touring Theatre have a distinctive reputation when it comes to staging Ibsen. Their production of John Gabriel Borkman has not pleased everyone but never having seen the play before, Stephen Unwin’s exposition cast its icy spell on me in spite of one performance which failed to ignite. I had no preconceptions about how these characters ‘should’ be played and caught exactly the intricate emotional needs and lacks of these people.
Each is caught in a trap of his or her own making. The disgraced angel Gabriel (Michael Pennington) paces his study upstairs to the irritation of his estranged wife Gunhild (Gillian Hanna). Her bitterness at their reduced circumstances since his downfall and a spell in prison for fraud, cannot hide a sad and pathetic longing to gain the heart and soul of their son Erhart. But she faces competition from her sister Ella Rentheim (Linda Bassett) who looked after Erhart during his father’s imprisonment and has — at a distance — helped the Borkmans to survive financially ever since. Many years before, Ella had been discarded by Borkman who chose the guarantee of a business transaction over love, and married her sister for money.
The story begins with Ella visiting the Borkman household for the first time in some while with the news that she is dying. Ella, too, vies for Erhart’s devotion and longs for the young man to stay by her side during her final days.
Neil Warmington’s exquisite set provides a glacial backdrop with its pale sea-green walls and starkly beautiful view of a white Scandinavian winter. The simplicity of the design heightens the dynamic between the older characters, and contrasts with the brightness and warmth of the younger ones such as Erhart (James Loye) and the socially questionable Fanny Wilton (Mairéad Carty) with whom he is besotted.
Linda Bassett gives a tremendous performance as Ella, one which does not blind the audience to the character’s less attractive qualities. There is warmth and tenderness, forgiveness and acceptance, as well as a granite-hard determination. The most effective and thought-provoking scenes in the production are those Bassett shares with Pennington where depth and nuance offer the perfect illustration of accusation, self-recrimination and ultimate self-knowledge.
Pennington’s initial appearance is muted and unclear. Where this is supposed to be an ambitious man brought low by greed, yet still convinced his day will come again, the actor’s performance suggests a man who has always been a failure. The performance blossoms only when we see him engaged in discourse with Ella or Gunhild. From hereon in, he gives a moving and potent performance, taking the audience with him. We may be shocked at the way Borkman has lived his life and the choices he has made, but we can get an understanding of his misguided motivations and feel an empathy.
The odds are stacked against Gillian Hanna from the start. The part of Gunhild was originally played by Gillian Barge but the actress had to withdraw mid-tour through illness. How much time her namesake replacement had for rehearsals, I don’t know, but the actual performance suggests rather little. She gives a commentary on Gunhild rather than being the character so that we are ‘told’ that she is an avenging, rancorous lady but get no sense of this from the playing. Hanna also allows Gunhild’s resentment to inhibit her physically, giving an odd rigidity to her gestures and gait. Sadly, I could neither believe in nor be stirred by her performance.
Nevertheless, the power of Ibsen’s language and his psychological truth is excellently served by Bassett, Pennington and the rest of the cast. Fred Pearson offers a Foldal whose ability to see the good in disaster is infinitely touching, while James Loye and Mairéad Carty give solid support. The whole is both funny and moving while the death scene at the play’s finish had me in tears.
English Touring Theatre may not provide the Ibsen some of the critics seem to expect but as in all their productions, the clarity is sublime. It was a pleasure to have my first experience of John Gabriel Borkman at the hands of Stephen Unwin and ETT. What better way to learn afresh that life was ever a question of truth and reaping consequences.
© Sarah Vernon
John Gabriel Borkman opened at Malvern Theatre on 19th February and finished its tour at Richmond Theatre on 19th April 2003. Sadly, Gillian Barge, the original Gunhild in this production, died of cancer later that year.
Originally published on R&V on 27-04-03
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