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In entirely intimate and unmythological terms, Ibsen’s late and great John Gabriel Borkman (1896) tackles the central themes of Wagner’s Ring (1876). Its characters address the conversion of natural resources into power, the renunciation of love, the ruthless use of power to achieve huge goals and the anxiety about the next generation continuing this one’s legacy.
There are moments when Ibsen plunges us into primal feelings – we feel the tectonic plates of the psyche shifting – and yet this remains a domestic story about twin sisters who have both loved one man.
In Michael Grandage’s new Donmar Warehouse production, enthrallingly designed by Peter McKintosh, the nearness of the drama makes it newly engrossing. Borkman’s wife Gunhild often pushes the play towards melodrama with her possessive, jealous, demanding nature, and yet Deborah Findlay keeps this grim intensity tightly under control and makes it wholly understandable.
Ibsen’s poetic naturalism works here with a taut precision that anticipates Beckett’s Footfalls or Pinter’s Old Times. The play starts to work on us almost like music or dance: stillnesses, rhythms, phrasings, groupings, sudden changes of dynamics, looks or walks across the space, lyrical flowerings, all register profoundly. This is exemplified by Penelope Wilton as Gunhild’s sister Ella: a supreme performance. It is Ella who opens out the play’s morality most movingly, with her account of Borkman’s abandonment of love (“the sin for which there is no forgiveness”), and her preparedness to let Borkman’s son Erhart go, even in the face of her own impending death. Wilton’s extraordinarily restrained performance makes Ella the play’s true centre, and her reproofs to Borkman come like depth charges.
On this first encounter, David Eldridge’s new version of Ibsen’s play strikes me as superb. True, other translations and other Borkmans have made me feel the title character is a tragic visionary, a ruined though misguided hero, a Napoleon in exile. Ella’s love for him then has greater poignancy. But Ian McDiarmid’s account of Borkman as astonishingly selfish, myopic, deluded succeeds intelligently on its own terms. In the close dimensions of the Donmar space, this view of Ibsen becomes a major event in our theatre.
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