How extraordinarily coincidental that the very same day I finished D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers—complete!—I was thrust into Ibsen’s darkly pathetic John Gabriel Borkman.
The principal males in both works (Paul in the former, John Gabriel Borkman in the latter) are both the sons of miners.
For Paul, his near sexual relationship with his doting mother is forever fuelled and thrust into turmoil by the more usual loves in his life: solitary, Miriam and separated—but most certainly not getting a divorce—Mrs. Clara Dawes.
The women in John Gabriel’s life are twin sisters: one of whom he married after ditching the other—his true love—in order (he expected) to create a kingdom of wealth for himself and countless others.
Curiously, John Gabriel’s son, Erhart, is doubly mothered by both women. This familial tug of war comes to a screeching halt when Erhart opts for “happiness” in the shapely form of Mrs. Fanny Wilton—seven years older, the equivalent of Mrs. Dawes but far wiser than anyone else in the room.
How wonderful that these two literary giants would have so much commonality when it comes to the relationship between mothers and sons.
Unlike last night’s The Hypochondriac (cross-reference below), Paul Walsh’s brand-new translation honours the Norwegian playwright rather than forcing his taut scenes and carefully chosen words into the 21st century.
Director Carey Perloff is blessed with a five-star cast and, wisely, lets them do what they do best with the very minimum (which adds much to the production’s power due to the one-on-one encounters that drive the drama forward) of intrusive direction.
The first act is a masterpiece of dialogue that speaks volumes about long-suffering Gunhild Borkman (John Gabriel’s wife) and her sibling, well-to-do Ella Rentheim. Lucy Peacock gives an incredibly bitter performance in the pivotal role of Gunhild, living in shame after her husband was sent to jail for swindling nearly all of his bank’s clients. Seana McKenna is Gunhild’s perfect foil playing wealthy (through no fault of her own: John Gabriel spared her money while perpetrating a huge fraud that if allowed to continue for “8 more days” would have benefitted everyone—Ibsen deftly anticipating collective bankers’ greed in 2007) sister, Ella. Both women have had their turn raising only child Erhart (Ella taking the lad on for five years while his father was a guest of the state). As the fought-over young man who finds a conjugal way out of the contest, Antoine Yared is convincing, if a tad too earnest at times.
The tug of war over Erhart between the quarrelsome sisters threatens to dominate the action until the third wheel (Sarah Afful’s Fanny is ideally worldly playing the older woman with a cause) snags the impressionable young man while simultaneously nurturing the musical gifts of a much younger girl, Frida (Natalie Francis does a commendable job “miming” the violin lines from Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre).
After artfully setting the stage, Ibsen introduces the title character (although his constant pacing has been heard emanating from his second-storey “jail” throughout the sisters’ caustic reunion) via an exchange between an honest, simple-minded wannabe poet, Vilhalm Foldal (Joseph Ziegler delivers the role with a master class of innocent understatement) whose daughter is the aforementioned musician. Both men’s lives will change due to Fanny’s interests in their children.
As John Borkman, Scott Wentworth digs hard and deep into the misguided bank director who willingly sacrifices his true love (by rejecting Ella, Hinkel—the unseen fellow businessman—will, he hopes, have the field all to himself) so as to put himself in a position of trust. Proving there’s still nothing new under the sun of greed. Ibsen reveals that John Gabriel—through all manner of financial “trickery”—was on the cusp of financial and industrial nirvana for himself and countless investors (whether they knew it or not) at his bank, including the hapless Foldal who—even after his loss—opts on the side of forgiveness and becomes John Gabriel’s only friend.
Yet that enormous institutional swindle is largely put on the back burner as—in the final chilling moments—we’re left to almost pity the reckless director even as his demise brings the sisters together like never before.
Presumably, Erhart will be in coital bliss and happiness the likes of which Lawrence’s Paul (so at one with John Gabriel) can only dream about. JWR