Reviewed by James Karas
*** (out of 5)
If you want to produce a play by Ibsen, especially a weighty one, you should treat it like an attack on a well-fortified city. You better have the best generals, bring out your heavy artillery and siege machinery and aim carefully. John Gabriel Borkman, his 1896 play, demands nothing else but if you are successful, you will be richly rewarded.
Borkman is a grand play that deals with complex issues that are as numerous as they are difficult to unravel. Director Carey Perloff and her stellar cast illuminate most of the complexity of the play in a superb production at the Tom Patterson Theatre.
From left: Lucy Peacock, Seana McKenna, Scott Wentworth. Photography by Don Dixon.
The play is aptly named after its central character. John Gabriel Borkman is a megalomaniac banker who committed moral and legal crimes on a grand scale. His greed had no bounds as he attempted to amass a great fortune while destroying the lives of people (it’s only money) including the lives of his friends and the woman who was in love with him. As with many such persons, he claimed to have a vision, a plan to do good for people. The vision was probably delusional or self-serving. The result was that he was convicted and incarcerated for five years. The play begins eight years after his release from prison.
Scott Wentworth as Borkman is completely egocentric and remorseless. He lives in the grand hall of his house alone and paces up and down most of the time. Vilhalm is his only friend (superbly played by Joseph Ziegler) and his daughter Frida (Natalie Francis) who visits and plays the violin for him. Borkman discards Vilhalm, a man of decency, forgiveness and understanding, who is unlike the delusional dreamer who hallucinates of making a comeback.
Lucy Peacock plays Borkman’s embittered wife who is full of hatred but just as delusional as her husband. She dreams of her son Erhart (Antoine Yared), in mythical heroic fashion, restoring her reputation. Her twin sister Ella (Seana McKenna) raised Erhart after the Borkmans lost everything (they are living in her house) but she too hates John Gabriel because he destroyed her ability to love.
Peacock and McKenna have distinctive voices which can deliver tinges of bitterness, hatred and passion with individual intonation but at the same time sound like twin sisters which is what they are in the play. They fight for the soul of Erhart, the one because she needs a liberator and a restorer of her reputation, the other as the young man who will take her name and inherit her fortune. Peacock and McKenna are magnificent.
From left: Scott Wentworth as John Gabriel Borkman, Seana McKenna as Miss Ella Rentheim and Lucy Peacock as Mrs. Gunhild Borkman inJohn Gabriel Borkman. Photography by David Hou.
Erhart is a nice young man who is in love with Mrs Wilton (Sarah Afful) who happens to be seven years older than him and a widow. He asserts his independence by breaking away from his mother and aunt (really his stepmother) and their ambitions for him.
For the final act Ibsen takes the two sisters and Borkman out in the stormy weather where they must account for themselves in a heavily symbolic scene.
The theatre-in-the-round Tom Patterson restricts design to stage furniture and lighting. Designer Christina Poddubiuk decorates the stage with a few pieces of furniture and with judicious lighting design by Bonnie Beecher, we do get the claustrophobic and closed world of the play.
Director Perloff takes a heavy-handed approach to this dark play that demands that type of treatment. The last scene in the snow smacks of melodrama but this is a production that Ibsen would have certainly approved of.
John Gabriel Borkman by Henrik Ibsen in a translation by Paul Walsh continues in repertory until September 23, 2016 at the Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca