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A CurtainUp London Review
John Gabriel Borkman
The beautifully atmospheric set subtly suggests the imprisonment of the family's predicament. Tall nineteenth-century windows reveal an inhospitable, wintry landscape outside, with continually falling snow. When characters approach, their faces are reflected, as if they are not allowed the privilege of a view and all adding to the sense of captivity.
The house is obviously wealthy and grand, but also dark, gloomy and comfortless. From upstairs, there is the sinister sound of incessant pacing whilst the room itself is sparsely decorated and the few pieces of furniture have panels of bars. When the scene moves outside, any sense of escape is overshadowed by the dangerously hostile Nordic weather. A carpet of pristine snow is rolled out whilst the lighting turns stark and flurries of frozen blizzard falls.
David Eldridge's new translation is clear and naturalistic for so complex a text. In fact, he is able to express Ibsen's detailed emotional nexuses, weighted with past hurts, without sounding pretentious or artificial. Moreover, this script enjoys a cast fully capable of doing the dialogue and the strong characters absolute justice.
Ian McDiarmid puts his stage charisma and presence to excellent use as the fiercely unpenitent John Gabriel. The son of a miner who sees the earth as containing untapped wealth, he has sacrificed himself and others for the sake of profit. However, not avariciously grasping, he is a grandly idealistic, although also hubristic, dreamer. With tunnel-vision egomania, he is infuriatingly majestic in his pride.
The members of his family have all been scarred and deformed by his crime, not least his wife Gunhild. Deborah Findlay's performance simply exudes engrained bitterness. However, rather than alienating the audience, it is obvious that her desperate character has been damaged by suffering. In another impeccable performance, her sister Ella is played by Penelope Wilton. A shell of her former self, she has been hardened by betrayal and abandonment. The fantastic first scene is a steely tussle between the two twin sisters, simmering with resentment and jealousy.
The object of this sisterly rivalry is Gunhild's son Erhart (Rafe Spall). For one sister, he represents all the love she has lost and for the other, he could restore her fortune and honour if he just settled down to dedicating his life to this mission. In reality, he is the spoilt, weak product of being loved obsessively and possessively by two rival mother figures. His answer to the pressure is simply to escape with the scandalously fun and flirtatious Mrs Wilton (Lolita Chakrabarti).
In this very human-oriented tragedy, we see Ibsen's striving for hopefulness in a desolate landscape and wretched situation. With such strong performances, an impressive translation and handsomely designed set, this is a moving drama of towering characters confined by an inescapable, unappeasable past.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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