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John Gabriel Borkman

The Times 7th March 2003

Darkness in a white landscape, Benedict Nightingale

Edvard Munch, who knew something about both landscapes and emotional power, called Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman “the most powerful winter landscape in Scandinavian art”, and there are times in Stephen Unwin’s revival for English Touring Theatre when you see what he meant.

Michael Pennington’s playing of the title character helps. So does Neil Warmington’s set. Behind a scrim, snow falls incessantly on sad little firs and a withered birch. In front is a living room that mutates into an attic but always suggests that some 19th-century Ikea has launched a range of spare, Shaker-style furniture. And the evening ends with a tableau of death, complete with black figures, more snow and the Munch-like feel.

For most of the evening Pennington’s Borkman, the entrepreneur jailed for embezzlement, broods and paces upstairs. His wife, Gillian Barge’s Gunhild, broods and sits downstairs, looking and sounding like some grim Norse goddess. Enter her twin sister, Linda Bassett’s Ella, who has rather more reason to brood, since she’s dying of a disease ultimately caused by the stress of being rejected years ago by Borkman; but, at least at first, she exudes a quiet melancholy.

The plot mainly involves James Loye’s Erhart, who is Gunhild’s son but was brought up by Ella, which is why these wrangling sisters want to possess him: Ella for death-bed solace, Gunhild so that he can restore the family honour. But those who know their Ibsen will see the women’s error. People, especially young people own themselves. Self-fulfilment matters more than convention, duty, self-suffocation.

Familiar Ibsen themes are packed into this dense, striking even if sometimes melodramatic play. It’s about the claims of truth and illusion, but even more about the crimes of the heart and the impossibility of escaping the wrongs of the past. In every case that implicates Borkman, who dreams only of rebuilding a career that combined crassness with utopianism. As the title suggests, he’s John, the blunt man of business, but also Gabriel, angelic visionary eager to create industrial miracles for humankind.

Memories of Vanessa Redgrave, who played Ella seven years ago, aren’t wholly kind to Bassett, who gets the surface rage but not the deep pain of love denied. Barge, whose main job is to be bitter and baleful, has the force of personality to get away with such lines as “you have destroyed the last remnants of what little I had to live for”. But the evening belongs primarily to a sleek, silver-haired Pennington.

All right, he doesn’t catch as much of the angel as Richardson in 1975 or Scofield in 1996, but his Borkman is spot on when he compares himself to the shattered Napoleon. He’s tough, bold, sharp of wit and tongue, self-obsesses, charismatic. John in excelsis.

The Times, 9th March 2003, Kate Bassett

The British Theatre seems obsessed with Scandinavian classics this season. You’d think 2003 was Ibsen’s centenary with the RSC rehearsing Brand, the Almeida ser to reopen with the Lady From the Sea and Ingmar Bergman’s Ghosts coming to the Barbican in May. Meantime, I caught English Touring Theatre’s John Gabriel Borkman in Greenwich. This is another portrait of an old man in a marital “cold war”, dreaming of starting again even as he stares death in the face.

Silver-bearded yet vigorous, Michael Pennington plays the disgraced businessman who’s long been stuck neurotically pacing in his study, while his estranged wife, Gillian Barge’s Gunhild, sits frostily downstairs. She’s determined her son Erhart will be her loyal golden boy, but she has competition from Linda Bassett’s Ella – Erhart’s foster mother and JGB’s first love who now owns the house.

Stephen Unwin’s production has a spare, yet pretty simplicity. The pine floor of Neil Warmington’s set, furnished with a few chairs, runs into the outdoors where snow falls on a silver birch. That starkness sometimes seems to match the bare bones of Ibsen’s scenario. Some moments do, however, seem flatly under-directed while other wax melodramatic, and Stephen Mulrine’s translation can sound stiff. Still Bassett (no relation), is a fine subtle actress, playing steely with tenderness underneath. Ibsen’s condemnation of selfishness and his simultaneous celebration of self-determination do come over clearly. And Pennington is memorably passionate, staggering up a mountain to die, still fantasising about the factories and ships he could have owned as the king of all he surveys.

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