Thirty years of Ibsen at BAM

We survey three decades of the Scandanavian master in his Brooklyn second home.

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This week the Brooklyn Academy of Music sees the opening of the Abbey Theatre's John Gabriel Borkman, a seldom-revived play by Norwegian master of naturalism and bourgeois tragedy Henrik Ibsen (1828--1906). Since we don't get a Borkman every season, especially not one with such a high-profile cast, we wanted to survey historic, mostly foreign Ibsen productions at BAM, an institution that has racked up quite a few Heddas and Wild Ducks over the past 30 years.

John Gabriel Borkman January 7--February 6
Alan Rickman, Fiona Shaw and Lindsay Duncan headline Ibsen's tale of a disgraced banker, recently released from jail, who broods in an upstairs room while his estranged wife plans her family's return to respectability. To judge from the wintry, desaturated production art, set designer Tom Pye and director James Macdonald have taken to heart painter Edvard Munch's description of Borkman as "the most powerful snow landscape in all Nordic art."

Hedda Gabler November 2006
German regietheater star Thomas Ostermeier aggressively modernized Ibsen's shocker about the violently bored title housewife who plays with guns. Rather than a tasteful villa in Christiania, Norway, circa 1890, the set depicted a chic domicile with glass partitions and a glossy black floor. It screamed "sleekly designed, but generic and soulless"—which helped explain the vicious frustration of Hedda (the waifish Katharina Schttler). There were other clever touches: Instead of Lovborg's manuscript—which Hedda spitefully burns—she took a hammer to his laptop computer. Purists might scowl, but Ostermeier treated the play not as a museum relic, but a living text. This Hedda capped off BAM's Ibsen Year 2006: four revivals pegged to the centenary of his death.

The Wild Duck October 2006
The National Theater of Norway also updated its Ibsen—to the 1950s, allowing for an impromptu performance of Elvis's "Love Me Tender" on a flute. Director Eirik Stubo staged the story of a son trying to undo the damage of his rapacious businessman father on a set of green artificial grass and plywood walls, emphasizing the more stark, symbolic aspects of the drama.

Peer Gynt April 2006
Ibsen's last verse drama (before his prose period) got the Robert Wilson treatment in this predictably abstract, quirky, four-hour version. Although one could argue that the 1867 piece is fantastical enough to accommodate a vision as extreme and bizarre as Wilson's, critics complained that having weirdly costumed actors twitch, hop, chirp and bark with excruciatingly choreographed precision had very little to do with Ibsen's epic satire.

Hedda Gabler March 2006
Cate Blanchett made for a feral and brash Hedda in this Australian import, with a liberty-taking adaptation by Blanchett's husband, Andrew Upton, that one reviewer groused was essentially Ibsen being "publicly kneecapped." In truth, the Blanchett Hedda (by the Sydney Theater Company) was notable for keeping its period clothes on, but creating an interesting tension by letting the Australian cast externalize states of anger and lust more overtly, physicalizing the Nordic angst.

Nora November 2004
If critics and audiences thought Upton played too fast and loose with Hedda, they must have been horrified by Thomas Ostermeier's first trip to BAM, in which he ended his modern-dress version of A Doll's House with liberated housewife Nora bursting back through the door she just slammed—and shooting hubby Torvald Helmer dead.

Ghosts June 2003
Ingmar Bergman turned to this 1881 classic for his final Ibsen at BAM (and his last work on stage). Pernilla August was a marvelously tortured and self-deluded Mrs. Alving in this exquisitely designed, expressionistic study of how parents' corruption taints their children. We'll never forget the final tableaux: syphilitic Osvald (Jonas Malmsjo in ghostly white makeup with a bloody gash on his forehead) twitching and clawing the floor, as his mother looks on helpless.

Peer Gynt May 1993
Bergman offered BAM habitus his staging of the daunting, poetic Peer, featuring a leading lady from his 1950s films, Bibi Andersson and, in the title role, Borje Ahlstedt. Commenters noted how Bergman embraced the coarser, clownish aspects of the material, as much as its dreamy romanticism.

A Doll's House June 1991
Bergman presented his take on troubled spouses Nora and Torvald Helmer (in repertory with his stagings of Long Day's Journey Into Night and Miss Julie) for three nights only. Always sensitive to female psychology and the bitter power struggles of marriages, Bergman brought out layers of complexity and sexuality in his Nora (also portrayed by Pernilla August).

The Wild Duck March 1981
The only homegrown production on this list was apparently not a success. It was presented by the now-defunct BAM Rep and staged by Arthur Penn (of Bonnie and Clyde movie fame). In his New York Times review dated March 22, Walter Kerr noted that the Thomas Babe adaptation was "initially stodgy, then increasingly ludicrous." Overly modern turns of phrase got under the reviewer's skin. Kerr headlined his evisceration, "Ibsen, Alas, Is a Dead Duck." Oof. We hope our reaction to John Gabriel Borkman is much happier.

John Gabriel Borkman is playing at the BAM Harvey Theater through Feb 6.

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