Heavyweight Cast Can't Quite Save John Gabriel Borkman

01/14/2011 9:30 AM |

John Gabriel Borkman
Written by Henrik Ibsen, translated by Frank McGunness
Directed by James Macdonald

Ibsen's late play John Gabriel Borkman concerns a corrupt, disgraced, still self-justifying banker forever prowling upstairs in his chambers while his hard wife listens and winces below. Borkman has been in prison, and he doesn't dare show his face outside; scores of people lost all their money because of his grandiose scheming. He still dreams of escape and starting again, and Ibsen zeroes in on the quiet furtiveness of his dreams on the surface and the monstrous self-assurance that lies underneath them. This is a man whose self-deceptions are so vast that we can barely make them out, and in Alan Rickman's restrained, even recessive performance as Borkman in this production of the play at BAM (through February 6), there's no telling just how rotten he truly is. Sadly, there's no telling about a lot of things here, particularly in the playing of smaller, key roles like Borkman's friend Vilhelm (John Kavanagh) and the temptress-like Mrs. Fanny Wilton (Cathy Belton), both of whom seem almost wholly inexplicable as played.

As Borkman's wife, Fiona Shaw paces the stage furiously, athletically; she points, she shouts, she howls, she fidgets. This is to be expected of a Shaw performance, and it would be a fine representation of a very unattractive character if director James Macdonald could have reined in some of her wilder physical excesses; at the start of the second act, Shaw rings a bell for a servant, and then she rings it again with such volcanic, low comedy impatience that it feels like she wants to escape the measured gloom and plentiful exposition of the text. Sharing the first scene with Shaw, the cool blond Lindsay Duncan (who is supposedly playing her twin sister!) is so cowed by Shaw's juiced emoting that she often simply stands back and lets it just wash over her. She has better luck in her scenes with Rickman, especially their first encounter up in Borkman's lair, and the chemistry that Duncan and Rickman have had in all their stage teamings comes to the fore momentarily, only to be drowned in her character's faintly ludicrous carping about how he's a murderer because he's killed all love in her. Duncan is stuck in a dud role and she knows it, whereas Rickman is sketching a large characterization but his work feels unfinished and tentative. In the scene where all three of them fight for possession of Borkman's son (Marty Rea), Shaw uncovers the comedy in the rampant selfishness on display and does her best work when she gets to be incredulous over Rickman's chauvinist mutterings, but the pace fatally drops in energy as these often dreary self-victimizers get lost in a raging snowstorm. Ibsen finally deposits Borkman in a snowdrift that symbolizes the icy hand about to take hold of his absent heart, and this play is so seldom performed that it's very much worth seeing in this production, even if the heavyweight cast isn't quite at its best yet.

(photo credit: Ros Kavanagh)