John Gabriel Borkman: Ibsen Does Chekhov
In a house a man paces without ceasing in his room. Living downstairs, separated from her husband, is his wife Gunhild (Clare Higgins). Her sister Ella (Lia Williams) has just come to visit! The sisters fought over the man who is now husband to one — the married sister thinks she triumphed. Only it turns out that the other sister is the love of his life and they’ve almost been having an emotional affair all these years. The husband is a failed banker; he had one shot…and he lost it, which he doesn’t seem to be able to get over. Not sure what he’s doing in his bedroom, apart from waiting…Whilst downstairs his wife rages and seethes.
Waiting for his friend’s daughter to come and play the piano daily. Waiting for his friend Wilhelm (Michael Simkins) to arrive so they can review each other’s lives and failures. Is he perhaps waiting for the sister to arrive, or his wife to leave. John Gabriel Borkman is a man bogged down with regrets; just as his wife is full of loneliness and feeling unloved and alone. Her husband has been in prison, serving his sentence for fraud, embezzlement and she is socially isolated. Their son is trying to fly the nest, which seems more like a prison to him and going to a party — at his father’s enemy’s house. Borkman’ friend’s daughter is going to play the piano at their party — after first playing for him.
Weirdly, and which no-one appears to question, sinisterly, Ella took her married sister’s own son and raised him as her own. Apparently, this was because the bank had failed, and the family was suddenly deeply in debt and impoverished — seemingly she was giving him a better life. Ella has even bought the Borkman’s modernist house (a concrete luxury bunker). The son, Erhart, is certainly very fond of her; whilst feeling smothered by both his parents and chooses to run off with the more joyful Fanny in her vibrant lime green coat. (No wonder when the tune of the day is the Dance of Death!)
John Gabriel Borkman is keen to pronounce how unlovely and unloved his wife is — but has, infact, her sister overrun her life and taken everything from her before she even had a chance. It all feels a bit Charles Dickens household. None of this is questioned though — we have to take John Gabriel Borkman’s word for it. And the only time he seems to come alive is when he’s with Ella….
Ella tells Borkman that she’s dying, which Gunhild discovers from her eavesdropping hiding place. Ella hopes that Erhart will spend her last days with her; instead, he doesn’t — he chooses to run as far away as possible with Fanny and Wilhelm’s daughter, showing a lack of gratitude and grace. There is an excruciating moment when the adults verbally dance around each other (all knowing this dreadful news), wondering how Erhart will choose and who will tell him what they all know.
Upsetting his friend Wilhelm and revived by a visit from Ella, John Gabriel Borkman goes for a walk. Up a mountain. In the snow. Where he suffers what seems to be a stroke and the sister allows him to die, without summoning help. Murder?
It’s a very intense drama about a potentially unpleasant set of people which runs straight through without an interval. Simon Russell Beale (even as a withdrawn character) still draws you in with his humanity. Yet it is Clare Higgins who works the magic — she makes us sympathise with Gunhild in her raging grief and rejection, in the oppression of their separated lives, not being able to speak the truth. Lia Willians similarly lets us feel her wounding when Erhart doesn’t do what’s expected of him, what’s right and instead chooses himself, to put himself first and run away from all of them. It feels more like Chekhov with all these intense trapped characters weighed down by the expectations of others; yet it is Wilhelm who enlivens things with his humour, gentleness and kindness. Less John Gabriel Borkman, more Wilhelm please!