John Gabriel Borkman

Bille Brown Studio (Queensland Theatre Company)


By Henrik Ibsen

Professional production

Although it’s a French composition, Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre (The Dance of Death) mirrors perfectly the frenzied atmosphere of this shivering Norwegian play, Ibsen’s second-last but largely neglected study of hatred and failed ambition. In Michael Gow’s production for the QTC, the piano piece is played by the tender young virgin Frida Fodel (Georgia Harrison) to her music teacher John Gabriel Borkman, who has immured himself in the upper reaches of the house ever since his release from prison eight years before. As cold as the unheated rooms he inhabits, Robert Coleby sends shivers down the spine in his characterisation of the obsessed white-collar fraudster, with just enough hints of sexual predation to add another edge to this already unbearably edgy play.

Famed Polish critic Jan Kott called this the greatest of Ibsen’s plays, on a par with King Lear in the way that its larger-than-life characters, and the audiences, are driven to unbearable emotional extremities, but for my money Borkman has neither the nobility of character nor the pathos of the old king, for Borkman is an out-and-out crook, the Alan Bond of his day, who ruined many innocent investors and was made to serve his time. Since his release, a ruined and broken man himself, he has remained alone upstairs in the house lent to him by his sister-in-law Ella (Judi Farr), while his bitter and unforgiving wife Gunhild (Penny Everingham) remains downstairs, refusing to have contact of any kind with him, and resenting everyone, even her twin sister, whose charity she is forced to accept.

That’s the background to the plot, but the situation of the play is the fate of Gunhild and John Gabriel’s son Erhart (Daniel White). After his father’s disgrace he had been sent to stay with his aunt Ella, who brought him up and has invested all her frustrated emotional life in him. For she had also been in love with John Gabriel, but because her twin sister Gunhild stole his love from her, Ella is determined to steal the young man’s love from his real mother. And as Ella has the money (she alone escaped ruin during the financial crash of Borkman’s bank), she’s in a winning position.

The melodramatic plot thickens when Ella, terminally ill, comes back to her old home to die, demanding that Erhart must take her name home and inherit her considerable wealth. The question, then, is whether the old people, frozen in their thwarted expectations, can keep the next generation similarly entombed in the chilly north, or whether the gormless young man will have the courage to break away and flee to the sunny south, for the great escape into warmth and love.

He’s encouraged to do this by two young women, the rich and oversexed Fanny (Helen Christinson) and the aforesaid Frida, lured both by her admiration of Fanny and her own desire to escape from her pathetic failure of a father. Steven Grives in this small part almost steals the show, his abject acceptance of a life of total humiliation contrasting with his irritating good nature as he seeks out and tries to help Borkman. His passive acceptance of his daughter’s flight, even when he is run over by the carriage in which the three young people are escaping, is one of the best scenes I’ve seen for a long time.

May-Brit Akerholt’s translation is almost perfect in the way that it draws attention away from itself and lets the text do the talking. There’s barely a false note here, and as she had the advantage of working with the actors, any infelicities could be ironed out during rehearsals, so that the text remains fluid and accessible in a way that many translations never achieve.

On the whole, Michael Gow’s production captures every nuance of the caged frustration of all Ibsen’s characters, and he’s helped by Jonathon Oxlade’s clever set, which uses the daunting width of the stage in the Bille Brown theatre to enhance rather than distract from the action, as it has a tendency to do. As Borkman paces up and down his upstairs prison like a caged animal, the snow falls relentlessly outside the house, and this restless movement contrasts with the icy stillness of his wife Gunhild, a role to which Penny Everingham gives her formidable best. Her bitter anger is always there, but it simmers rather than explodes, and only her endless knitting suggests her inner turmoil, which has its own rhythms.

Her estranged twin sister Ella, by contrast, is edgy in a more neurotic way, and in Judi Farr’s very impressive interpretation of the role is shown to be as selfish as any of the others, and as much in search of revenge, albeit with a more genuine reason, which softens her hard edges.

And Robert Coleman – well, what can one say? One would think the role was written specifically for him, so much does he make it his own. The tiger is tamed but not pacified, and he has learned nothing from his crime and punishment except resentment and an ever deeper hatred of a world that he thinks neither understands nor deserves him. His megalomania remains intact, so his inevitable death is neither heroic nor tragic, like Lear’s, but fitting.

There are aspects of the production, though, that are puzzling, and detract from the power of the whole. One is the costume design, which is not so much universal as irritating. We’re in Norway in the 1890s, in the depths of winter, and while Ella appear rugged up in deep furs and a taffeta dress from the late 1940s (but too short to be authentic), the temptress Fanny appears first as a ’30s vamp and then in a short strapless shimmering sheath. There’s no continuity here at all, and the appearance of Georgia Harrison doubling as the maid Malena in dowdy 21st century trackies is another anomaly. And why do some of the women wear seamless stockings and some with seams? Once seamless stockings became fashionable in the late 1950s, the seamed variety were worn only by old women – it’s just recently that they have come back as a fashion statement. And why, while I’m being picky, does Gunhild keep all her knitting wool (in very modern pre-rolled balls rather than the skeins of the period) piled up under her chair rather than in a basket? It may look good as a design device, but it’s not how things were done, whatever the period.

The costuming, as appealing as it is, is all over the shop and detracts from the play’s integrity, and this disjunction is also apparent in the characterisation of the younger members of the cast. No maid would have dared to speak to her mistress as Malena speaks to Gunhild – she acts as if she were in a cheap soapie like Home and Away, and uses the intonations of a sulky modern teenager. Daniel White shows no spark at all, being as passive and malleable in Fanny’s hands as he presumably was in his mother’s and aunt’s, while Helen Christinson seems to think she’s still in a Noel Coward play. I really can’t understand why Michael Gow let this happen, when the four older actors have grasped Ibsen’s emotional idiom so convincingly. If it’s meant to emphasise the universality of the theme it doesn’t work, and I think does a disservice to the play’s integrity.

But luckily it’s the four adults who make the play work, and for them alone the flaws in the production can be forgive. Gow knows who he’s working with here, and this is as good a four-handed ensemble as you could wish to see. They understand the text and live it out with utter conviction, and it’s their performances which emphasise the truth that this play tells, that obsession is no defence for ruthless selfishness, and that no person can possess another’s soul.

Directed by Michael Gow

Translated by May-Brit Akerholt

Designer Jonathon Oxlade

Playing until Saturday 21 April 2007; Monday 6.30pm, Wednesday – Saturday 7.30pm, matinees Wednesday 1pm, Saturday 2pm

Duration : 2 hours 10 minutes, with one 20-minute interval

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Wed 28th March 2007)