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John Gabriel Borkman – Bridge Theatre, London

In John Gabriel Borkman, the titular character paces up and down, up and down, full of resentment and bitterness. Previously a wealthy bank manager, he was found to have been speculating with other people’s money, and was subsequently imprisoned for five years. Though much time has now passed since his release, still the scars remain; he’s locked himself away in his room, unable to face the world outside.

John Gabriel Borkman - photo by Manuel Harlan.
John Gabriel Borkman – photo by Manuel Harlan.

And yet, in spite of his fall, still he hopes he can return to public life, that his reputation will recover, and that he can, somehow, begin again. People like him can’t help raging against the dying of the light.

Simon Russell Beale is Borkman, hair unkempt, brilliantly pathetic and petulant, like an angry child stomping his feet and refusing to accept any responsibility. Every generation has its John Gabriel Borkmans, those consumed by personal ambition, who clamber to the top, to fame and fortune, deeply flawed and beneath it all, I suspect, quite unhappy. (Perhaps you’ll see shades of real-life twenty-first-century figures in Beale’s performance… You wouldn’t be the first!)

Borkman’s private life is in ruins too. He’s hardly on speaking terms with his wife, Gunhild – played with seething cynicism by Clare Higgins – and she in turn fights with her twin sister, Ella, over Gunhild’s son Erhart (Ella had previously helped to bring him up, away from the scandal that surrounded his father).

Whereas Borkman, Gunhild, and even to a lesser extent Erhart (Sebastian De Souza) are all driven on by their own selfish instincts, Lia Williams’s Ella is – here and there, at least – genuinely kind and understanding. She has, perhaps, suffered the most, and we are drawn towards her; it is a compelling performance by Williams and one is reminded that Borkman-types tend to leave a trail of betrayed and broken souls in their wake.

If you knew nothing of Ibsen you might think the play was written last year, for the family tensions on display are so recognisable. Sister against sister, husband against wife, father against son; the whole thing is teeming with resentment, all the more so as long ago, it seems, these characters really did love each other.

Beneath all the shouting there is great sadness.

4 stars

Review by Henry Tydeman

John Gabriel Borkman, once an illustrious entrepreneur, has been brought low by a prison sentence for fraud. As he paces alone in an upstairs room, bankrupt and disgraced, he is obsessed by dreams of his comeback. Downstairs, his estranged wife plots the restoration of the family name. When her sister arrives unannounced, she triggers a desperate showdown with the past.

Simon Russell Beale plays Borkman in Ibsen’s towering masterpiece.

Cast
Simon Russell Beale – JOHN GABRIEL BORKMAN
Sebastian De Souza – ERHART BORKMAN
Clare Higgins – GUNHILD BORKMAN
Daisy Ou – FRIDA FOLDAL
Michael Simkins – WILLHELM FOLDAL
Ony Uhiara – FANNY WILTON
Lia Williams – ELLA RENTHEIM
Nick Barclay – UNDERSTUDY JOHN GABRIEL BORKMAN AND WILLHELM FOLDOL
Hilary Derrett – UNDERSTUDY GUNHILD BORKMAN
Catharine Humphrys – UNDERSTUDY ELLA RENTHEIM AND FANNY WILTON
James Coutsavlis – UNDERSTUDY ERHART BORKMAN
Antonia Huang – UNDERSTUDY FRIDA FOLDAL

Creative Team
DIRECTOR – Nicholas Hytner
WRITER – Henrik Ibsen
A NEW VERSION BY Lucinda Coxon
FROM A LITERAL TRANSLATION BY Charlotte Barslund
SET DESIGNER – Anna Fleischle
COSTUME DESIGNER & ASSOCIATE SET DESIGNER – Liam Bunster
LIGHTING DESIGNER – James Farncombe
SOUND DESIGNER – Gareth Fry
CASTING DIRECTOR – Robert Sterne
ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR – Isabel Marr
COSTUME SUPERVISOR – Olivia Ward
PROPS SUPERVISOR – Lily Mollgaard
PRODUCTION MANAGER – Kate West
VOICE COACH – Jeannette Nelson

John Gabriel Borkman
Bridge Theatre, London
24 Sep 2022 – 26 Nov 2022

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