It’s exciting to see the current Ibsen revivals—John Gabriel Borkman in a new version by Frank McGuinness at BAM Harvey Theater and Mike Poulton’s adaptation of Rosmersholm recently at the Pearl Theatre Company.  Not only are they resuscitating the image of the great master, manacled by defining terms such as “naturalism, realism, romantic drama, melodramatic theatricality” (the list comes courtesy of the Ibsen scholar Toril Moi in her essential book on the subject Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism), but they also confirm her point that “Ibsen is more modern than ever.”  He may also be more relevant than many of the contemporary playwrights you’ve seen in New York recently.  In Rosmersholm, for example, the director, Elinor Renfield, shrewdly used Austin Pendleton to ignite the play’s political warfare—battles that are typically bewilderingly weathered to reach the play’s ultimate death wish.  By casting a well-known, passionate actor in the role of a conservative who lost an election, Renfield was able to emphasize a part of Norwegian history that ran unexpectedly parallel to American politics today.  

Interestingly, the Pearl’s scenic design for Rosmersholm also seemed more open, less rigid than we’re accustomed to when envisioning Ibsen—and this may be part of the reason the new work seems so successful.  No one minds reimagining Shakespeare away from how the Globe probably presented him, or how Chekhov was shown at the Moscow Arts Theatre.  Ibsen, however, nearly always gets the complete bourgeois living room treatment—doors, walls, heavy set pieces.  Yet why can’t his plays be redesigned imaginatively?  In the new production of John Gabriel Borkman, for example, the snow, so important to the final act, is visible right from the start, foreshadowing the fateful drive into a frigid Norwegian night (decide for yourself how the last act works mechanically—Tom Pye did the sets, and Jean Kalman the sometimes very naked lighting–or whether, on our own freezing, snowy winter nights, BAM simply opened the roof to let the outside in).  The interior of Borkman’s home is designed minimally here, too–made up of select pieces of period furniture, it’s close to surrealism—as Michael Billington has said, “Ibsen can be spare, ironic, witty and sexy.  What also perennially strikes me about Ibsen is his raging modernity.”

Listen to the footsteps from above early in John Gabriel Borkman (which are part of the script)—are they really that far removed from absurdism?  Are they really not that far removed from comedy (I looked over my shoulder twice thinking someone was coming up from behind me with Ian Dickinson’s sound design)? Ingmar Bergman has commented—in Lise-Lone Marker’s and Frederick J. Marker’s Director’s in Perspective: Ingmar Bergman, A Life in the Theater–that the scenes with the character Foldal, Borkman’s sole friend, are “ ‘so perfect, so precise, so full of black humor’ that they seem ‘like Beckett or Ionesco . . . Or like the dialogue between Lear and Gloucester on the heath.’”  Ibsen is often brought up in conversations about play structuring (famously by Lajos Egri), as if he’s just been hauled in from an archaeological dig (where we’re considering the reconstruction of wooly mammoth bones found near a fjord).  The dry, anatomy lesson takes away from the fact that Ibsen normally goes too far—he’s not boring at all. Heretical, fanatical, and relentless are how I would describe the plays—no redemption and no remorse. I’ve mentioned on this blog before that I can have trouble following an Ibsen play near the endings because the “stuffy realist” can be so irrational in building up to and playing out his solutions:  a  woman can’t reconcile with her husband and return to the status quo, so  she must leave everything behind her that night without properly considering the consequences (?); a couple can’t marry, despite their love and their sins, so they must make a suicide pact and kill themselves immediately (?); the man who has been imprisoned inside his sister-in-law’s house for eight years–after serving time for illicit financial dealings–must race into the freezing night unable to curb his greedy fantasizing (?).  Perhaps the characters in these plays are better described as “UNrealistic”—characters that ought to come back to reality.  Of course, part of what makes Ibsen so noteworthy is the fact that he never cops out, that his major characters don’t change during the course of the plays, they only become more of themselves.  John Gabriel Borkman, the second-to-last play Ibsen wrote, follows a figure who has committed a white-collar crime—however, he has paid his debt to society by serving a five-year prison term.  Neither he nor his family can forgive or forget, neverthless—in fact, Borkman believes that he will be hired back by his old firm, that they will actually need him.  Delusional, he clearly is.  Yet I wouldn’t say that it’s not an everyday madness–think of those who lost their jobs during the current recession.  As one of them, I can absolutely say, there is a part that believes there is an old job to go back to—yet as a person wiser than I has said, the companies where people lost their jobs have learned to work with the decreased staffing, they’ve gotten over it by now.  I’m not sure the previous employees have.

There is also the subject of Borkman’s greed, the compounding factor in his personality, which erupts unrealistically at the end.  His desire reverberates not just for the individual but for all societies in the West, currently—and I think this is part of the reason why the Abbey Theatre’s revival speaks so directly to us, as well as to the Irish and the British. The play’s director, James Macdonald, has unearthed a particularly appropriate classic for our time: The subject is a slippery slope (pun intended in this context) because we all know we want more of what we had—yet we don’t know how to modify, we don’t know where the new economic levels will relocate themselves in a world where China is overtaking us, where jobs aren’t even in our own countries anymore.  We only know, as Ibsen states, “We all get run over.  We have to get up again.”

Of course, we’re watching an extremely fine acting ensemble who knows the playwright, Alan Rickman, especially, showing a dedication to works of Scandinavian literature—he was also fantastic in Strindberg’s Creditors, which came to BAM last season.  There’s such elegance, such exact characterization from these performers—Lindsay Duncan coldly pierces and penetrates as she embodies a living woman who has died; Fiona Shaw displays a certain wildness, she finds the irrational in Ibsen, and she grants us a place to laugh with the playwright: “How was I to know it wasn’t his money he gave me to squander?”

Moi's all too brief writing on John Gabriel Borkman discusses the work in terms of its contrasts—she notes the “frozen” protagonist “opposed to characters representing youth, desire, vitality, and energy.”  In this play the young are still naive, “Live, to hell with work,” says Borkman’s son, Erhart, who only knows he must get away from his suffocating family (which we’ve seen portrayed many times in drama).  The older members have had no choice but to face living deaths, bound to each other.   Ibsen's ideal may be to be young and carefree—but for the stage, we’re riveted by his older characters.

In the January 24 New Yorker, Woody Allen wrote a very short story called “Money Can Buy Happiness—As If.”   Litvinov, his central character, has lost his job and his friends are being investigated on various criminal charges, death being a final blow for some. The piece absurdly uses the metaphor that Litvinov’s income is based on playing Monopoly.   Allen has long discussed more somber work, but here he demonstrates unapologetic blackness.  When people wonder what movie Woody Allen should be working on next, maybe Ibsen, the dour Norwegian might be suggested as a correct collaborator. Facing similar concerns, they’d be able to make one another laugh in recognition.

© 2011 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.


 John Gabriel Borkman

Part of the 2011 Spring Season

Jan 7—Feb 6, 2011: Tue—Sat at 7:30pm; Sat at 2pm; Sun at 3pm;
Wed, Feb 2, 2011 at 2 & 7:30pm

US Premiere

By Henrik Ibsen in a new version by Frank McGuinness
Abbey Theatre, Ireland
Directed by James Macdonald

“Few theaters in modern times have had a greater impact on their own society than the Abbey”The New York Times

Greed is good, according to Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman—until it sends him to prison for embezzlement and leaves him ruined, disgraced, and desperate for a comeback. Three outstanding actors—Lindsay Duncan, Alan Rickman, and Fiona Shaw—join a wonderful ensemble from Ireland’s acclaimed Abbey Theatre to tell this timely tale of one man’s undoing in the wake of relentless deception and fraud.

As portrayed by two-time Tony Award nominee Rickman (director: Creditors, 2010 Spring Season; actor: Private Lives, Broadway; Harry Potter films), Borkman is a man obsessed with reinvention. He schemes in isolation while his estranged wife, played by Shaw (Happy Days, 2008 Spring Season; Medea, 2002 Next Wave), plots the restoration of the family name. Staged by James Macdonald (Top Girls, Broadway; Dying City, Lincoln Center Theater), Ibsen’s mordant drama is triggered by the unannounced arrival—and stunning request—of Borkman’s lover, portrayed by Tony Award winner Duncan (Private Lives, Broadway), whom he abandoned to secure the power that will forever elude his grasp.

BAM Harvey Theater
Approx 165min with intermission

Subscription & Theater Package Tickets:
$28—76 Sat night & Sun mat
$20—64 All other performances

(Full price: $35—95 Sat night & Sun mat
$25—80 All other performances)

Prices are subject to change.

Set design by Tom Pye
Costume design by Joan Bergin
Lighting design by Jean Kalman
Sound design by Ian Dickinson

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