Theater News

Lindsay Duncan Goes BAM

The Tony Award-winning actress discusses starring with Alan Rickman and Fiona Shaw in John Gabriel Borkman at BAM.

Lindsay Duncan in John Gabriel Borkman
(© Ros Kavanaugh)
Lindsay Duncan in John Gabriel Borkman
(© Ros Kavanaugh)

In over three decades on the stage, in both London and the U.S., Lindsay Duncan has triumphed in some of the greatest parts ever written, from the Marquise de Merteuil in the original production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses to Titania in the 1996 Broadway production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Amanda in the 2002 revival of Noel Coward’s Private Lives, for which she received Tony and Drama Desk Awards.

So when she was asked to play Ella in a revival of Henrik Ibsen’s drama, John Gabriel Borkman, at Dublin’s Abbey Theater this past fall, opposite her longtime colleagues Alan Rickman and Fiona Shaw, she signed on. “I was rather intrigued and challenged,” she says. “It is a difficult play, yes, but the more I got to know it the more impressed I was. It’s about the capacity for self-delusion — ignore that at your peril.”

Now, Duncan is even more thrilled that the production is coming to New York — specifically, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where it begins a month-long run on January 7. “It has been one my long held dreams to work at BAM,” she says. “I admire it as a cultural principle and the stage is so breathtakingly beautiful. I am a real theater person and I am genuinely excited about the whole BAM ethos. I just can’t wait.”

In the play (being presented in a new version by Irish playwright Frank McGuinness), Borkman (played by Rickman), a disgraced bank manager who has served time in prison for embezzlement, lives an isolated life in his home, estranged from his wife, Gunhild (Shaw). The couple’s uneasy life together is disrupted by the unexpected arrival of Gunhild’s sister, Ella, who is also Borkman’s former lover.

“She comes back with a very specific aim, but even she is thrown by her return to what was her family home,” explains Duncan. “Everybody is forced by her arrival to take a look at their lives, and that is for everyone, very disruptive and painful. “Three extraordinary people have wasted their lives and I think that’s a very good question. What do you value in your life, what do you do with your life?”

However, Duncan stresses the work is more than just another dysfunctional family drama. “The play is universal – it is about human beings rather than issues – but nevertheless it is timely. One of the themes is the reckless capitalism which Borkman practices, which must have some resonances. It certainly did in Ireland, as you can imagine. We were in Dublin when the full extent of their economic problems was revealed.”

For the three actors, this production marks a very special occasion. Duncan, Rickman and Shaw last worked together in the original 1985 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Les Liasons Dangereuses; however, Shaw opted out before the production’s commercial transfer to London’s West End and then on to Broadway because she was playing leads in other productions at that RSC that season.

“I think we were all very moved by the idea that such a big chunk of time could go by and now we can embark on this huge play together,” says Duncan. It really is lovely. We’ve all had wonderful careers in the intervening years, and in some way, not completely, we are recognizably the same people.”

While Rickman and Shaw have achieved near-universal recognition through the Harry Potter movie franchise (Rickman as the shady Severus Snape and Shaw as Harry’s uptight Aunt Petunia), Duncan says she has never been considered for a part in the Potter movies. “No, and I’d like to know why. Thank you for putting that question out into the world!” she says with a laugh. “Not that I’m bitter, just curious. I have to say that most of the people in my age group have been in Harry Potter, but not me.”

For tickets and information on John Gabriel Borkman, click here.