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John Gabriel Borkman

James Macdonald's uneven staging of Henrik Ibsen's still-contemporary play boasts some brilliant acting. logo
Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman
in John Gabriel Borkman
(© Richard Termine)
Any staging of Henrik Ibsen's rarely performed John Gabriel Borkman now at BAM is is a welcome treat for theatergoers. And director James Macdonald's uneven new production, which originated at Ireland's Abbey Theater, boasts two powerful and often frightening turns from British stars Lindsay Duncan and Fiona Shaw. When the two actresses share the stage, the production not only sparks with unexpected humor, but brilliantly catches fire.

It's unquestionable that Borkman, written over 110 years ago, resonates for contemporary audiences. The title character (Alan Rickman) is a once-powerful bank manager, who prior to the play's beginning was imprisoned for misappropriating his investors' money. And when Borkman's wife Gunhild (Shaw) describes the details of her husband's shame and the couple's profligacy, the specters of the Madoffs spring into theatergoers' minds. Later, as Borkman details how he had planned to harness the natural resources of his country to create an empire for himself, the memory of the Enron debacle stirs.

Yet, Ibsen's play does not focus on the intricacies of Borkman's misdeeds. Instead, it centers on the emotional and psychological devastation that the man's quest for power has wrought on himself and those around him -- not only his wife, but her twin sister, Ella (Duncan) and his son, Erhart (Marty Rea) -- and the ways in which all of these characters are attempting to rebuild their lives some 16 years after Borkman's fiscal transgressions were discovered.

For instance, Gunhild, whom Shaw imbues with a deliberate icy severity and brittleness, hopes to inspire Erhart to accomplish such great things that the family's disgrace will be erased. Unfortunately, Erhart, who, during the early part of his life, was raised by Aunt Ella, has little patience for his mother's demands, as he's fallen in love with Mrs. Wilton (played with cutting vivacity by Cathy Belton), a divorcee of whom Gunhild certainly does not approve.

Ella, brought to life with fatigued passion, indomitable strength, and understated compassion, by Duncan, also has an agenda for her nephew and for Borkman, who jilted her when they were younger. Ella wants to convince Erhart to reassume his role as her surrogate son. She has come to the Borkman estate -- which is actually her property -- hoping that she might convince his father to assist her in her plans and ready to do battle (on whatever level necessary) with her equally manipulative sister to accomplish her ends.

As the faded, yet still vital, Borkman, Rickman delivers sturdily, but never as intensely. The performer's deep voice certainly demands attention, but somehow in portraying this man who has convinced himself that he has wronged no one but himself, Rickman turns in a performance that is overly muted (particularly under Jean Kalman's overly dim lighting design). It's not until late in the play, when Borkmanrages against a blizzard into which he's wandered, that the actor actually captures audiences' imaginations.

While Rea's turn as Erhart underwhelms, there is fine supporting work from John Kavanagh as the warmhearted Wilhelm, a former subordinate of Borkman's, and from Amy Molloy as Frida, the latter man's daughter, who has become a companion to not only Borkman, but also Mrs. Wilton.

Tom Pye's elegantly spare scenic design surrounds the stage with snowdrifts and indicates the interiors with only a few pieces of furniture. It's a grand visual metaphor for the stormy barrenness of the central characters' emotional worlds.

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