Meet the Borkmans

Frances O’Rourke reviews Frank McGuinness’ new adaptation of Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman starring Alan Rickman

As a die-hard Die Hard fan I jumped at the chance to see Alan Rickman in John Gabriel Borkman at the Abbey. Upon laying eyes on the set a lady nearby knowingly muttered “ah, snow!” much in the way I knowingly mutter “ah, fat suit!” at the beginning of those hilarious Eddie Murphy-plays-everyone romps. At this point, the realisation dawned on me that I was in for an intense couple of hours of Ibsen – and not an evening of light entertainment.

As the drama unfolds it becomes apparent that many years ago respected banker Borkman was jailed for misusing clients’ funds and, since his release, has imprisoned himself (in a somewhat gothic manner) in the upstairs of his home. Unhappy? Yes. Regretful? No. Instead he blames an old friend for betraying him and waits in vain to be reinstated to his former eminent role in society. He is dislikeable, petulant, cruel and of course masterfully portrayed by Alan Rickman.

On the ground floor of this delightful “home sweet home” is Borkman’s wife Gunhild, played with great intensity and passion by Fiona Shaw in an exceptional performance. Obsessed with restoring the name of Borkman to its former glory, she smothers her son in the process. Her ice-queen sister Ella (the excellent Lindsay Duncan) has also been destroyed by Borkman’s ambition and arrives at the house with her own selfish agenda. All three are obsessed with making their own mark on the future and Erhart, the son, is clawed and fought over by all three with no thought for his own wishes.

The most humane character in the drama is Foldal, the humble clerk who is portrayed sensitively by John Kavanagh. He is the only person to regularly visit the isolated Borkman, yet he is treated with disdain, and Gunhild even sneers at his meagre financial loss. As a family the elder members are as cold-hearted as the snow which dominates the landscape of a beautiful set designed by Tom Pye. Unfortunately this lack of likeability also leaves the audience cold: making it impossible to care about the fate of the characters.

It would be impossible to watch Frank McGuinness’ new adaptation of Ibsen’s play about a disgraced banker without drawing comparisons to modern day, and indeed it is perfect timing for this production. Experiencing such high-calibre acting certainly made for a memorable and worthwhile evening; however, I’m in no rush to meet these characters again. If I need a fix of Rickman in a snowy setting I’ll just press play on Die Hard. After all, to paraphrase Hans Gruber, “Now I have it on DVD- ho ho ho.”

John Gabriel Borkman is playing in the Abbey Theatre until November 20th.

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