John Gabriel Borkman – April 2007


By: Henrik Ibsen, in a new version byDavid Eldridge

Directed by: Michael Grandage

Venue: Donmar Warehouse

Date: Thursday 5th April 2007

This was a fascinating play, and an excellent production. The intimate setting of the Donmar worked very well, as the play focused on the peculiar domestic situation of the Borkman family. The senior generation were basically a bunch of loony tunes trying to get by on their delusions, which all come to a sudden, shattering end when JGB’s son finally decides to speak up for himself, and to run off with the woman he loves (and a spare).

The set was simple. A row of windows at the back look out on to some trees, dead now in winter, as snow gently drifts down. A wide bench sofa in the middle has some grey crochet work on it, while to our left is a table and chair. Deborah Findlay, as Mrs Borkman, is restlessly sitting, crocheting, and pacing, as she waits for her son’s arrival. But the first arrival is a woman, unknown to the maid, who is obviously both well known to Mrs Borkman, and seriously disliked by her. Mrs Rentheim (Ella), is played by Penelope Wilton, and it turns out she had taken away Mrs Borkman’s son, Erhart, when JGB was sent to prison, many years ago. He’d used other people’s money to live a more lavish lifestyle than he could afford, and to speculate in the emerging market to exploit Norway’s mineral and other resources. We learn of the women’s rivalry for Erhart’s affection, and how Ella, whose money had been completely untouched by JGB’s depredations, bought the family estate, and allows them to continue living there. Mrs JGB seems particularly obsessed, repeating the idea that her son has a destiny to restore the family name. Like most of the characters in this drama, she feels she has suffered the worst, more than those who lost all their life savings, because she has suffered the loss of the family name. At the very end of the scene, Ella clarifies their relationship, as twin sisters.

Towards the end of their confrontation, Erhart arrives home, with Frida and a Mrs Wilton. They are off to a party at the Hinkel’s. Mrs Wilton is a very sociable woman, and it’s evident that Erhart is smitten with her. Frida heads upstairs to play piano for JGB, while Mrs Wilton takes her leave to go to the party. However, soon Erhart follows her, much keener for her company than his mother and aunt’s.

The second act is set in the upstairs room where JGB spends his days, pacing up and down, and occasionally being entertained by Frida. She plays Danse Macabre – his favourite, apparently. The room is similar to the one downstairs, but the windows are shuttered, and the furniture is different, with several piles of books dotted about the place. After she leaves, by the back stairs, her father, Vilhelm, arrives. He spends his spare time trying to be a poet, and writing a play. From JGB’s reactions, it’s clear he doesn’t think much of these efforts, but he does need an audience for his own views. As we need to hear them too, we’re treated to his megalomaniac diatribe against the forces which brought him down, specifically a lawyer whom he considered a friend, and to whom he’d confided too much. The lawyer, Hinkel (yes, the same one), passed some letters on to the authorities, and JGB was doomed. He’s spent the last eight years going over and over the trial – the evidence, the prosecution’s case, his own defence – and time and time again he comes to the same conclusion – he’s innocent! Yet again, we have a character who feels “more sinned against than sinning”. I suspect Ibsen is having a go at the older generation, perhaps those who seem to be constantly passing the buck for their decisions, and expecting the next generation to make everything better. I don’t know any historical context for this play, but that seems to be the message.

JGB and Vilhelm quarrel, and after Vilhelm leaves, JGB is visited by Ella. She’s determined to have Erhart for her last few months on earth, and she wants JGB to help her convince Mrs Borkman to let him go. When he attempts to help out (and this involves going downstairs, something he hasn’t done since he came back from prison eight years ago), everything falls apart. Mrs Borkman sends for Erhart, to force him to decide between them, but he drops a bombshell of his own. He’s leaving that very night, with Mrs Wilton and Frida. They’re travelling to Europe, where Frida will get further training in music, and probably some other things as well. Mrs Wilton is quite frank about the inevitability of their relationship ending, and Erhart’s eventual need for a replacement – she’s just making sure he’s got one handy. At last Erhart speaks up for himself and renounces all his elders’ plans for him. By this time, even JGB is planning to re-enter the world and rebuild his life, and wants Erhart to go with him. But Erhart will have none of them. He doesn’t want to work, he just wants to have fun. So off they go.

The penultimate scene sees the three older folk outside, looking for the sleigh that will carry Erhart away from them for good. They hear the ringing of silver bells further down the hill, and then Vilhelm appears. He’s come from his house to tell them the good news; that Frida’s off to study music in Europe. Mrs Wilton’s taken her, and there’s a tutor to teach her other subjects as well. JGB explains what’s happened, and he’s delighted – unlike the others, he seems to see good in everything that happens. He was even knocked down by the very sleigh that was taking his daughter away, an event that doesn’t bother him – he’s more impressed by the fact that the sleigh had silver bells, showing how wealthy Mrs Wilton is.

The final scene is JGB and Ella walking through the night to a bench they used to spend time together on. He’s refusing to enter that house ever again. He talks of the opportunities he can feel in his blood, the ores and other riches lying in the cold ground, calling to him to release them and let them fly. His one regret is not having been able to do that. He dies, from the cold, and slumps down on the bench. Mrs Borkman arrives, with the maid, and sends her for help. The two sisters talk, their animosity apparently at an end, but although they speak of holding  hands over the dead body, I noticed that this staging had them at either end of the stage, and showing no signs of getting any closer. (According to the stage directions in the text, they do hold hands over JGB’s dead body.) Interesting.

There’s a lot of good stuff in this play, and the actors portrayed the various characters brilliantly. Their willingness to show total obsession, rampant megalomania, and all sorts of other less popular traits, was admirable. Not a family you’d want to spend time with, but absorbing to watch on stage. None of the characters is appealing, although Ella does at least seem to be more concerned that Erhart should live his own life than any of the others. She was JGB’s great love, but he left her to Hinkel in return for the position at the bank which would allow him to carry out his schemes. She loved JGB, and was devastated when he renounced her. More unnecessary suffering.

I liked the honesty and humour of the production, and the symmetry of the opening scenes – three women confronting each other, and then three men, although Hinkel isn’t physically present. I found my sympathies changing a bit over the performance, though nothing could make JGB remotely likeable. A very enjoyable afternoon.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at

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