John Gabriel Borkman
Henrik Ibsen, in a new version by David Eldridge
On their first outing, with the Wild Duck, the fascinating creative team of Henrik Ibsen, David Eldridge and Michael Grandage had an award-winning hit.
Now, they are attempting to repeat the feat with a comedy so black that it might well be a tragedy and it would be unwise to bet against them repeating their triumph.
John Gabriel Borkman is a play that attracts starry trios, including two tremendous teams at the National in the last thirty-odd years. Ralph Richardson, Peggy Ashcroft and Wendy Hiller led in 1975 and Paul Scofield, Vanessa Redgrave and Eileen Atkins twenty-one years later.
This new Eldridge version, which reads well and emphasises the dark humour, also has a very well respected team in Ian McDiarmid and Deborah Findlay playing the Borkmans with Penelope Wilton as Gunhild's twin sister, Ella Rentheim.
John Gabriel is the proudest of men. He rose to become a bank manager by somewhat nefarious means but still the power was not great enough. He then sought to build empires on funds borrowed from his customers.
The respectable Pillar of the Society so nearly got there but thanks to what he regards as the disloyalty of a lawyer friend, ended up instead with eight years in custody. Following that, he has spent eight more imprisoned, practically in solitary confinement, pacing the top floor of his own house like "a sick wolf in a cage".
His wife will not speak to him and spends her whole, bitter life raging and trying to turn their son Erhart against his father.
In the garret, the eponymous anti-hero deludedly plots for his acclaimed return to save the bank and the town, only visited by his antithesis, David Burke's Foldal. This is a man who was destroyed by Borkman's misdemeanours but remains wilfully and illogically happy, even when his young daughter deserts him.
Matters only get worse when, after an absence of a decade and a half, Ella returns and immediately opens old wounds.
She had been a rival for John Gabriel's hand as well as stepmother to his son, and a war is waged by the twins with a battle ground apparently being the Borkmans' son, Erhart played by Rafe Spall, although in a way his father is still the subject that divides the sisters.
The young man confounds everybody's plans by chucking them all in favour of a wild affair with an older divorcee, not the done thing in Norway 110 years ago.
He does however bring the family feud to a head and the old man is flushed out of his cell with devastating results. Not only are Borkman's terrifyingly self-centred attitudes demonstrated but they are mirrored in his son. Matters get so bad that it appears as if no two family members will ever speak again.
However, since Borkman and Ella are dying, each needs to find peace and, eventually, a cathartic walk in the bitter cold between a fjord and a forest helps them to do so. The forest is lovingly created by designer Peter McKintosh whose simple set primarily involves flying walls between scenes.
In John Gabriel Borkman, Ibsen dramatically demonstrates the way in which one man's bad actions can affect so many, however much he may try to deny them. This is a canny playwright, though, and just as one begins to get the measure of any character, they show hidden depths so that the apparently good harbour bad ways and vice-versa.
It is very hard for actors to compete with the memory of iconic predecessors but McDiarmid embodying misplaced pride, Miss Wilton fading strength and initial nervous energy and Miss Finlay long-built anger will all make a positive impression on their viewers and might expect to compete for award nominations.
A final snowy tableau simultaneously brings peace and death as well as the end to Grandage's satisfying, beautifully acted and very moving 140 minute production.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher