John Gabriel Borkman, directed by Michael Gow, is set sixteen years after the imprisonment of John Gabriel, who was guilty of laundering his clients’ money at the bank where he was manager. He lives upstairs in the house that his sister-in-law and former flame, Ella Rentheim, provides for his family, while his wife, Gunhild Borkman, lives downstairs. The married couple do not speak to one another and always remain on their separate floors. The Borkmans’ son, Erhart, is the apple of both his birth-mother Gunhild and foster-mother Ella’s eyes, and is a student who lives in the city. When Ella returns to make her claim on Erhart, and request that he takes on her name and lives with her while her mortal disease finally takes hold, Gunhild reveals how she also plans for Erhart – that he will restore the name of Borkman. Erhart however has other plans; an infatuation with the divorcee neighbour Mrs. Fanny Wilton and a desire to escape his parents’ manipulations. A melodramatic tragedy that ends in death, disruption and disgrace, the plot speaks volumes in honour to ones family or to ones self.
The plot clearly had a large influence on the set design. The extreme definition of upstairs and downstairs and the effect this had on the characters’ relationships in the plot was excitingly realised in the dual level set design that literally displayed an upstairs and downstairs simultaneously. While this set was at first very powerful, with the opening scene seeing Gunhild sitting downstairs knitting with the incessant footsteps echoing from above as John Gabriel paced his room, it very soon became apparent that the set was not integrated into the rest of the performance very well. It was built very close to the edge of the stage, allowing only for a small playing space, and several support beams were placed throughout that hindered the actors’ ability to move around the space. At one point, John Gabriel was meant to be outside and looking up at the stars, but it was uncomfortably obvious that there was a roof only centimetres above his head.
Later on, a reveal was attempted and the curtains at the back of the ‘rooms’ were pulled down to see through the house and ‘outside’ where more action was taking place. I appreciated the idea of a reveal to a different location but the realisation of it didn’t work. Half the curtains seemed to stay up where they should have come down and what did pull down left messy strings just hanging there like untangled vines. And what lay behind the ‘house’ was blank nothingness with what looked like a few interesting bits of lambs wool and a tree branch. I don’t like criticizing Jonathon Oxlade who normally creates some amazing designs, but it honestly seemed like the design was only half-thought out or they ran out of budget, which either way isn’t good.
The set wasn’t the only downfall of the production. The playing style of the actors was stagnant and stiff. For much of the piece the actors stood perfectly still and at great distances from one another while they spoke dialogue at each other. I suppose this said something about the way these characters felt uncomfortable with each other and were so distant from each other but from an audience perspective it only distanced us further from our enjoyment of the work. For a play by the Father of Modern realism there didn’t seem to be anything realistic about the physicality of the actors. The only one who moved in a naturalistic way was Erhart. His performance had the most credibility of the whole show and he would have only been onstage for about a fifth of the entire time.
The whole play seemed to have major issues with conforming to the set period. Mrs. Wilton appeared onstage in a strapless, silver sparkly dress and high-heeled peeptoe shoes that were completely from the wrong era, and at one point the maid brought on stage a battery operated torch! Understandably perhaps they were trying to create something that was more relatable to the audience by diverging from the era somewhat. But when the script refers to being run over by a horse-drawn carriage, or the revolution of mining gold and ore from the ground, it is obvious that this piece is meant to be set in the Victorian era.
Unfortunately I cannot say that I enjoyed this production. It was long, slow, drawn-out and dull. My partner who witnessed the show with me, and who has absolutely no theatrical knowledge whatsoever, said even he knew exactly where the story was going and what was happening after about 20 minutes. There was none of the suspense or drama that is meant to be played into an Ibsen piece. Instead, it was stale and weak. I adore Ibsen’s work. But this was one production that I simply could not like.
Queensland Theatre Company presents
John Gabriel Borkman
By Henrik Ibsen
English version by May-Brit Akerbolt
Venue: Bille Brown Studio
Dates: 26 March - 21 April 2007
Opening Night: 29 March
Tickets: $35 - $55. 26 & Under: $26