By Henrik Ibsen
Directed by Carey Perloff
At the Tom Patterson Theatre, August 19-September 23, 2016
One of Ibsen’s later plays, John Gabriel Borkman has a bone-shaking chill that envelops it. Edvard Munch described it as “the most powerful winter landscape in Scandinavian art.” And he was not simply referring to the snow and ice that collect outside the manor house of the Rentheim family in Norway, but to the winter and ice in the hearts of some of the principal characters and to their feelings of devastating loneliness and frustration. The title character is a former banker, a convicted felon, who has suffered a double imprisonment. He has served his criminal sentence but for the next eight years he has imprisoned himself in a bleak room where he paces restlessly like a caged sick wolf. His wife Gunhild has spurned him, accusing him of a crime against himself. And his ex-lover Ella, Gunhild’s twin sister, has not forgiven him for jettisoning her for the sake of material success. The sisters are cold to each other because they are locked in battle over the Borkman son, who would rather strike out on his own than be subjected to this icy battle. And then there is Vilhelm Foldal, a subordinate government clerk, who is a comic foil to Borkman. He imagines himself to be a poet playwright, eager to have Borkman’s approval but who is coldly scorned and dismissed by Borkman. Vehement and passionate, the play strives for a compelling revelation in a final scene in the dead of winter.
So the ideal production would show both types of winter—the literal and the psychological—which is something that Carey Perloff’s production does not achieve in its intimate configuration at the Patterson. The production has a pinched, spare look—which is right in its limited way. Winter’s physical symptoms are denoted in Christina Poddubiuk’s décor by a painted stage floor in cold, wan colours and by sparse furniture in bleached tones. The costumes are chiefly in black, with the only exceptions being Foldal’s brown and the salacious divorcee Fanny Wilton’s flamboyant wine colour in a costume with an inexcusably modern cut. Bonnie Beecher’s lighting adds to the feeling of dry chill, but the only visible snow comes near the end with a few falling flakes in the final act, which is meant to mark a desperate trek in the snow by Borkman before his apocalyptic vision and fatal heart attack. The lack of real physical elevation—a landscape of rugged slopes and cliffs—hampers the climactic moment, robbing it of some vital dramatic urgency, and even the poetic power of the scene is diminished in the process.
Perloff’s taut production (in Paul Walsh’s English translation that stays faithful to Ibsen’s resonances) does make something dramatically interesting from its physical meagreness, because of some strong performances. The Fanny (Sarah Afful) and Erhart Borkman (Antoine Yared) play one striking character note apiece, while Joseph Ziegler once more shows what a fine character actor he is in his delineation of Vilhelm Foldal. Combining grand delusion and seedy reality, Ziegler etches his own fine portrait of waste, yet managing to elicit comedy tinged with pathos. Lucy Peacock succeeds in conveying Gunhild’s embittered solitude, despite allowing the melodrama to run away from her control. Her perfect foil is Seana McKenna’s Ella, a silver-haired woman dying of an acute illness, whose silences are filled with emotional meaning. Their scenes together are high points of savage irony, that are, unfortunately, not quite matched by Scott Wentworth’s Borkman. The title-role is more of an enlarged silhouette of a would-be Napoleon of industry than a fully developed character. Much of it is an abstraction because Borkman’s passion and delusion are conveyed in an analogy of a hammer breaking precious ore loose from rock. But Borkman is also a vulnerable being who in sacrificing love for cold ambition victimizes himself by spiritual, soul-deadening coldness. It is a role that attracted acting giants such as Ralph Richardson, Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, and Paul Scofield—but not necessarily with the most excellent results. Borkman reaches a wild poetry in his death scene, but Wentworth is too much of the earth. He is rooted in prose, and does not express a prodigious struggle against Fate. Nevertheless, his is not a weak performance, and whatever its deficiencies, it holds its own against the portrayals of the others. An ideal production would combine Wagner’s huge savage power with Balzac’s scrupulous realism because Ibsen was a revolutionary in the theatre, who added great size and power to middle-class characters. Perloff’s production doesn’t have this magical combination, but it has a fair sharpness and does pay emotional dividends.