Although there’s some pretty fruity early stuff featuring dancing elves and whatnot, dour Norwegian stage legend Henrik Ibsen is that rare beast: a playwright so good that even his obscure plays are mostly bangers.
Finally revived by Nicholas Hytner at the Bridge after years of pandemic-related delays, the relatively little-seen ‘John Gabriel Borkman’ feels less like an Ibsen tragedy, more an epilogue to one of them.
Eponymous Norwegian businessman Borkman is a former high flyer, whose messianic belief in his ability to steer the country down the right path led to him committing a massive act of fraud that he was jailed for.
As the play begins, Borkman has served his sentence. But he’s nowhere in sight, barely spoken of. The production is set in his elegant but extremely un-cosy brutalist house – a great set from Anna Fleischle – which was saved from the debtors after his ex-lover Ella (Lia Williams) stepped in and purchased it. The ground floor is inhabited by Gunhild (Clare Higgins), Borkman’s wife. She is aghast when there’s a knock at the door and her estranged sister turns up: Ella.
The siblings confront each other. Williams’s Ella is ethereal and wild, Higgin’s Gunhild earthbound and grumpy. There is bitterness between them, particular over possession of Gunhild and Borkman’s son Erhart, who Ella raised as her own after Borkman was jailed. Eventually it becomes apparent that the clanking noise that has disconcertingly reverberated in the background ever since the start is Borkman himself, pacing the upper floor where he lives a separate, ghostly life. ‘The banker’ is how Gunhild refers to him, with venomous disdain.
It’s all very bleak, but Lucinda Coxon’s adaptation palpably and surprisingly lightens up when we move upstairs to meet Simon Russell Beale’s Borkman. Yes, he’s an embittered ruin of a man. But a combination of his uncrushed self-belief, a certain innate decency, and his weirdly charming relationship with his last loyal friend Willhelm (Michael Simkins) serves to give things a blackly humorous piquancy that livens up the play no end.
It’s not Ibsen at his most incendiary – a la ‘Ghosts’ or ‘A Doll’s House’ or ‘An Enemy of the People’ – but it feels like it could be a coda to one of those plays, a weird, funny, bleak, cathartic portrait of a group of once huge personalities now ebbing away. Erkhart (Sebastian de Souza) and his new love Fanny (Ony Uhiara) make a couple of fleeting appearances, and their vivacity and willingness to live for the now is a painful contrast to Borkman and his former lovers; ‘shadows’, as Ella describes them.
It’s an eccentric play, and undeniably less ‘important’ feeling than Ibsen’s prodigious greatest hits. But it has a whipsmart humour and wonderful momentum to it: a depiction of frozen lives finally experiencing one last calamitous thaw before the end of their days. Hytner directs fluidly and kinetically, and the lack of an interval is a smart idea to keep the pace up and stop it from getting too cosy. It feels less bogged down in symbolism than some other Ibsen obscurities. And the acting is great, Russell Beale and Williams in particular. Neither of them seem quite of this world - him an absurd, tragicomic creature of the soil, rhapsodising wildly about the treasures of the earth that were once his; her a nature spirit, intense, emotional, fading. Although their pasts are only hinted at, we sense something huge will leave the world with them.