Snow falls steadily throughout “John Gabriel Borkman.” Glimpsed through the tall windows of Peter McKintosh’s somber Norwegian house, it covers not just the chilled ground but the past mistakes of the embattled characters. Then, in a visual coup igniting the final scene, the back wall flies out revealing a vast carpet of snow edged with tall pines as Neil Austin’s hard white moonlight illuminates everyone’s crushed hopes. The thrillingly fulfilled ambition of the moment is typical of Michael Grandage’s production: The boldness, however, comes at a price.
Ibsen’s penultimate play has more than one foot in the past. The story’s central event happened 13 years earlier when the title character was imprisoned for five years for embezzling funds, causing an eruption of bankruptcies among innocent families. Since his release, Borkman (Ian McDiarmid) has hidden himself away, pacing up and down upstairs in his house.
Downstairs, meanwhile, not everything has been going according to plan. To shield Borkman’s son Erhart (Rafe Spall) from his father’s disgrace, he was largely brought up by his aunt Ella (Penelope Wilton), much to the chagrin of Borkman’s shamed wife Gunhild (a marvelously taut Deborah Findlay).
Not only is Ella Gunhild’s sister, she was also Borkman’s first love, the woman he abandoned in favor of power.
As that indicates, there’s heaps of exposition to get through, all charged up in the tense opening duet between the warring sisters. Barely taking their eyes off each other, the two beautifully dressed prize-fighters circle one another, their fears and needs opening up like wounds in their first meeting in eight years.
Flinty Gunhild is eaten away by fury, living vicariously through her son. In David Eldridge’s version of the play, Erhart is not, however, the expected bright idealist. Spall presents him, cunningly, as handsome but foolish, all boyish unthinking energy.
The battle between his fiercely blinkered mother and his dying but passionate aunt for Erhart’s soul is just one of the play’s mammoth emotional struggles. Painful though these confrontations are, Grandage never allows them to remain doom-laden, revealing instead layers of irony other productions left dormant. The borderline absurdity of their dilemmas is not lost on these characters.
Risking melodrama, the emotional range is pushed to extremes. The casualty of this is McDiarmid’s Borkman. An actor capable of scalding rage and immense subtlety, McDiarmid is extremely strong on Borkman’s self-disgust. But his overt, furious sarcasm robs his character of gravitas.
Borkman has to resonate with idealism. He was embezzling not for personal gain but to make money for the wider good of the people. Although McDiarmid’s irascible interpretation allows auds to see the damage the man has inflicted upon himself, his principled political vision doesn’t properly take root. This leaves the play unbalanced.
In her first showdown with McDiarmid, Wilton — in a career-best as Ella — thrillingly wipes the floor with Borkman by baring her soul. When he betrayed her love by abandoning her to become director of the bank, he destroyed all the love in her. She is so commandingly still and measured that her shocked and shocking cry “You’re a murderer” comes like an involuntary bolt of lightning bursting from her body.
The supporting performances are woven together with immense care. Casting Lolita Chakrabarti as Mrs. Fanny Wilton, the woman with whom Erhart runs away, is not just smart because she is wry, relaxed and positively statuesque — she is also black in a white society which immediately marks her as an outsider.
As Borkman’s well-intentioned but doddery colleague Vilhelm who longs to be a poet, David Burke has a benign, Chekhovian richness.
In the end, although McDiarmid’s effortful playing prevents the anti-hero’s final apotheosis in the snow from achieving its full tragic dimension, the intensity of the elemental struggle between him, Wilton and Findlay is incontrovertibly worth the trip.