John Gabriel Borkman is a play about delusions of grandeur currently getting a revival at the Stratford Festival that suffers from its own.
Director Carey Perloff’s production of Henrik Ibsen’s penultimate play is the kind that takes a famous text’s greatness for granted – and never quite gets down to the business of making the case for its status as a classic.
“John Gabriel Borkman is a play for master actors,” Perloff writes assuredly in her director’s note – and her cast, headed by Festival stalwarts Lucy Peacock, Seana McKenna and Scott Wentworth, certainly do their best to prove that they are exactly that.
Indeed, it’s a bit of a Master Actor showdown on stage – with characters and conflict and any stakes an audience can really care about getting a lost amid all the exclamation-point performances.
John Gabriel Borkman – played here by Wentworth – is a former bank manager who was imprisoned for stealing the life savings from his customers to invest in the mining industry.
Borkman spent eight years in jail for the crime and, by the time we meet him, he’s spent another eight in a prison of his own making. He’s been walking back and forth on the upstairs floor of his house, replaying the trial over and over in his head, always finding himself guilty of nothing except ambition that would have eventually paid off for all involved.
(I’m sure I don’t need to name any names of the modern fraudsters Borkman resembles. Take your pick)
While Borkman paces, his wife, Gunhild (Peacock), plots on the floor below – obsessed with figuring out how their son, Erhart (Antoine Yared), can restore her social standing.
The action of Ibsen’s play begins when Ella (McKenna) – Gunhild’s twin sister and also a former lover of Borkman’s – shows up unannounced one evening.
Gunhild and Ella used to fight over Borkman – but now they begin to fight for the love and devotion of Erhart.
Ella, who is dying, wants to bring her nephew to live with her and have him take her last name; Gunhild wants him to stay and fulfill her mission to redeem the Borkman family name.
Both would rather Erhart not follow his actual desires, particularly his romantic interest in a woman named Mrs. Fanny Wilton (Sarah Afful) who is divorced and – even more shocking – seven years older than him.
Twin sisters at each others’ throats, evil bankers scheming, sexy divorcées … John Gabriel Borkman can seem like a soap opera to a modern audience.
There’s also a sleigh-load of sonic symbolism in the snowy drama – from the footsteps in the attic, to the sound of gold hidden in mountains that calls to Borkman, to the chimes of the silver bells on Mrs. Wilton’s sleigh. (All well conjured by sound designer Josh Schmidt.)
At the end of his career, Ibsen – the so-called father of realism in the theatre – moved away from the naturalistic dissection of society of the so-called problem plays that made his name towards character-driven dramas heavy on symbolism.
The Norwegian playwright – like Borkman – is not all that interested in the fate of the people who lost their life savings at the hands of his scheme. Instead, he’s more interested in the sacrifices Borkman made to become the sociopath he became. His biggest crime: throwing away Ella’s love for ambition’s sake.
Alas, it’s hard to care much about love lost here, because all three principal characters comes across as two-dimensional monomaniacs – even McKenna making Ella’s selflessness as unattractively all-consuming as her sister’s selfishness.
Perloff stages the play with all the force of a Greek tragedy – which, in practice, means the cast enunciating the heck out of their lines and Peacock, in particular, spreading her plumage to the max every chance she gets.
The exclamatory performances do give this very talky play a fair bit of energy – but some of that energy is inadvertently comic.
How else are we supposed to react to the horror of the main characters that Erhart is dating a slightly older woman than with laughter?
Perloff doesn’t try to bridge the gap between Ibsen’s time and ours in any way – and neither does the somewhat academic new translation from the original Norwegian by Paul Walsh. This makes the play seem simply dated and the heightened take seem over the top rather than out of this world.
(Joseph Ziegler comes the closest to making us feel anything as the comic foil to Borkman, Foldal – his sole friend named who believes that he is a great playwright, the way Borkman believes he is a great man of business.)
Perhaps having just seen director Daniel Brooks make such a compelling case for the contemporaneity of Ibsen with his lively A Doll’s House at Soulpepper in Toronto, I was simply disappointed to suddenly feel so disconnected and distanced from one of Ibsen’s works.
Or maybe it’s just that this season Stratford lacked any edgy approach to the classics – something like Brooks’s take on Oedipus Rex last season, or Peter Sellars’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream the year before. Their experimentation this season has been more in a populist direction – and while it’s definitely been a successful year, it’s also been a little safe.
John Gabriel Borkman continues at Stratford’s Tom Patterson Theatre until Sept. 23 (stratfordfestival.ca).Report Typo/Error