Lia Williams, Clare Higgins and Simon Russell Beale offer an acting masterclass in the chilly wasteland of Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman at the Bridge Theatre
“There are different rules for exceptional people”
I wouldn’t normally be rushing to see an Ibsen play in all honesty but the dual drivers of John Gabriel Borkman being one of his plays that I’ve never seen before and Nicholas Hytner’s production casting the ‘exceptional people’ of Simon Russell Beale, Clare Higgins and Lia Williams meant that I cautiously made a return visit to the madeleine-scented air of the Bridge Theatre.
And they just about pull it off. The play – presented here in a new version by Lucinda Coxon – is exceptionally grim, the direction is relentlessly traditional and the staging is clinically distant. If it didn’t have the experience and expertise of this powerhouse trio of actors at its heart, it would have been too punishing for words but because it does, it just about gets away with it.
Russell Beale plays Borkman, a disgraced banker who has served time for embezzlement and upon release, has returned to the family he destroyed. But it is no warm home, estranged wife Gunhild dreams of the high life in front of a two-bar fire and the arrival of her sister Ella after their own alienation reignites old passions and retangles emotional connections across the board.
For Ella loved John Gabriel long ago, and has been providing for Gunhild and their son Erhart during their trials. And as she asks for Erhart’s companionship as she suffers from a wasting disease, everyone pulls in different directions as Gunhild wants to cling to him to avenge the past and he just wants to enjoy the venal pleasures of the present in the shape of neighbour Fanny. John Gabriel meanwhile paces aimlessly upstairs.
Everyone is distant and miserable and though that is the point, it just doesn’t make for a gratifying theatrical experience here. To wit, the grimness of Anna Fleischle’s set design may be appropriate but the stultifying scene changes are unforgivable, even as they’re soundtracked by live piano-playing from Daisy Ou’s Frida. There’s fine acting here but I could have happily lived never seeing this play.