The Brooklyn Academy of Music has the magic touch when it comes to booking international theater companies. The Abbey Theater’s production of “John Gabriel Borkman” is one of those dream bookings. With Alan Rickman giving a towering performance as Ibsen’s disgraced but unrepentant banker and Fiona Shaw and Lindsay Duncan scaling comparable heights as the women in his life, this could be the definitive version of the 19th century psychological drama, with its cautionary message for modern audiences about how an unbridled lust for money and power can make you crazy.
Tom Pye’s set consists of a few basic pieces of Victorian drawing-room furniture, positioned amid great mounds of icy snow. Jean Kalman’s lighting scheme throws the action into a deep gloom, and by costumer Joan Bergin’s design, everyone wears a lot of black. In the abstract terms of James Macdonald’s directorial vision, the production visuals deftly capture the perpetually cold winter of the characters’ souls.
The block of ice at the center of the drama is John Gabriel Bork-man (Rickman), a once-powerful financier who spent five years in prison for embezzlement and eight more years in a prison of his own making — the upper story of the house he shares with his estranged wife.
Adopting a grave, slightly sinister demeanor and dropping his voice to its sonorous depths (as he has done with many a film villain), Rickman presents a chilling portrait of a man who accepts no blame for his crimes and lives in the hope of being vindicated. In Rickman’s subtly terrifying performance, this reclusive ghost is no broken man but a megalomaniac who is gradually goaded into making one last crazed demand for his lost power.
Like other women of their era, Borkman’s wife, Gunhild (Shaw), and her twin sister, Ella (Duncan), have pinned their own hopes for happiness on a man. Erhart, the Borkmans’ son, hardly seems worth fighting over, in Marty Rea’s limpid performance. But he’s the only man around, and the sisters wage a pitched battle over this innocent youth.
Duncan (a Tony winner for “Private Lives”) plays it calm and detached, circling Erhart with cool determination and great cunning. Gunhild is too consumed with rage for civilized combat. In Shaw’s magnificent performance, this betrayed wife is all exposed nerve endings, pale with anxiety and shaking with fury when she thinks of what Borkman’s crime has cost her and how she might exact vengeance. There’s a bit of Medea, one of Shaw’s great roles, in her portrayal of this desperate woman.
Although Macdonald brings a cold, unearthly quality to the play’s overheated (and famously nutty) final scene, the ranting and raving over Erhart remains overheated (and famously nutty). Other than that, this is one fine piece of work.