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John Gabriel Borkman


Review by Benedict Nightingale- The Times- July 13 1996

John Gabriel Borkman

Lyttelton, London SE1

"Icy hearts of winter"

Ibsen's compatriot, Edvard Munch, called John Gabriel Borkman "the most powerful winter landscape in Scandinavian art". After seeing Richard Eyre's brilliantly tough, bleak revival, you may think the painter's praise stingy. By the time Eileen Atkins's black-clad Gunhild stretches out a hand towards Vanessa Redgrave's black-clad Ella as snow falls onto the corpse of Paul Scofield's black-clad Borkman, you will be hard put to name an artist of any nationality who has thrust you so feelingly into the season that, as Hugo said, changes heaven's water and men's hearts into stone.

All three main characters are human wraiths obsessively haunting their own pasts. Upstairs, Scofield's former banker paces, mumbles angrily to himself, and, when Michael Bryant's underling offers an ear, boasts of how he will revive the glistening career that ended with his imprisonment for fraud. Downstairs, Atkins's Gunhild broods and plots, a weird, silvery glint in her eyes. They are husband and wife, but have not spoken for a decade.

Redgrave's Ella is her twin and, you might think, a healthy catalyst. But though she seems warmer, she has her spooky side too. She once loved Borkman, he loved her, and she has not forgiven him for trading that love for advancement at work. Moreover, she has clammy emotional designs on the Borkmans' son, Oliver Milburn's Erhart, as have his parents. His mother believes the boy has a mission to restore the family's name, and his father madly suggests they go into business together.

Ibsen spent his career defending the right of the individual to resist the demands of others; and he was certainly not going to change his mind at the age of 68, when he wrote Borkman. With the help of the mistress, formidably played by Felicity Dean, Erhart duly makes an exit as life-saving as Nora's from her doll's house. But this time Ibsen takes a lot more interest in the oppressors than in their victim: which is fine, because at the National all three make a memorable, even indelible impression.

Redgrave is emotionally a bit self-effacing at first, but that only adds power to the passage in which she accuses Borkman of murdering her soul and his own, lines she fills with fierce distress. Atkins never softens what is bitter in Gunhild, at one climax transforming herself into a cross between a Grimm hag and Medea: which is appropriate, for the play is more mythic and Greek than naturalistically Norwegian. But somewhere within the witch is a woman who, faced with the prospect of losing her son, sags in pain to the floor amid the brown furniture and thin light of Anthony Ward's austere drawing room.

And Scofield? Well, he is a less dreamy Borkman than Ralph Richardson in Peter Hall's 1975 revival, but he is far more formidable. You believe his claim to want "power over power itself", meaning power to move as well as mine mountains. He might be a mix of Faust, Prometheus, Napoleon on Elba and Milton's Lucifer, given the passionate intensity with which he talks of industrial conquest and the rasping brutality with which he dismisses lesser mortals. A terrific performance, not to be missed.