1990s >> 1996 >> no-1104-august-1996

Theatre Review: ‘John Gabriel Borkman’

I wanted to boo!

John Gabriel Borkman by Henrik Ibsen (National Theatre)

John Gabriel Borkman is the story of a failed entrepreneur but, more than that, it is also the story of a failed human being.

Borkman the power-seeker does a deal with a friend so that the friend can marry the woman Borkman supposedly loves, whilst Borkman marries her twin. Caught embezzling the bank's funds he serves eight years in jail and then spends the next eight locked in his own room waiting for the call to come, waiting for "the man of vision" to work the financial miracle [sic] on which the well-being of the grateful citizenry supposedly depends.

The action of the play takes place over a few hours. The arrival of the woman he once loved, and now his sister-in-law, and his son's affair with a married woman, force Borkman out into the open – both figuratively and literally – and he dies of a heart attack on a freezing mountainside.

Writing in the programme Michael Ratcliffe notes that Ibsen, like his contemporary Marx, recognised that the pursuit of capital corrodes human relationships. But if Ibsen is, in consequence, critical of nineteenth century capitalism, this is not apparent in the play – or at least the current production. We are presented with a slice of bourgeois life: sisters who don't talk to one another, an aunt who tries to appropriate another's son as though he was a possession to be claimed, an estranged husband who has become almost a hermit, and so on. It isn't very edifying, but as played on the stage of the Lyttleton Theatre one would think it all very normal and unexceptional. Presumably the audience is supposed to be shocked by the pretension, the egocentricity, the cold inhumanity of most of those on display. But if shocks were intended they were certainly not realised when I saw the play in preview. Indeed the final scene in which the callous Borkman dies still muttering about his vision, and now apparently forgiven by his sister-in-law, fails to generate any of the feelings of disgust and anger which it so clearly warrants. Cast and director appear to be demanding our sympathy rather than stirring our revulsion and horror.

The audience seemed not so much sympathetic or affronted, as bored – apart that is for those happily clapping the reputations rather than the performances of an all-star cast, and enrolled members of the Institute of Directors. I wanted to boo. The play is presented in association with the National Theatre's Private Contributors. Presumably on behalf of the international capitalist class?

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