This Week in New York Insider's Guide to Arts & Culture in New York City Since 2001

16Jan/11

JOHN GABRIEL BORKMAN

Alan Rickman, Lindsay Duncan, and Fiona Shaw head a stellar production of Ibsen’s JOHN GABRIEL BORKMAN at BAM (photo by Richard Termine)

Brooklyn Academy of Music
BAM Harvey Theater
651 Fulton St.
Through February 6, $25-$80
718-636-4100
www.bam.org

Written in 1896, Henrik Ibsen’s penultimate play, JOHN GABRIEL BORKMAN, feels as fresh and alive as if it were written yesterday. Frank McGuinness’s new English-language version, directed by James Macdonald and first presented at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre this past fall, is currently having its U.S. premiere at BAM’s Harvey Theater, in a splendid production running through February 6. Ibsen’s dark tale of greed, power, and cold, soulless hearts centers on a once-prominent family torn apart by scandal. John Gabriel Borkman (Alan Rickman) was a successful bank manager who ultimately got caught embezzling funds, serving five years in prison before returning home, where he has been pacing in his upstairs cave for eight more years, never seeing his destroyed wife, Gunhild (Fioan Shaw), or his now-grown son, Erhart (Marty Rea). While Borkman is determined to regain his position, refusing to admit his guilt, Gunhild is battling her twin sister, Ella Rentheim (Lindsay Duncan), over Erhart’s love; after Borkman’s arrest, Ella took in Erhart for six years as Gunhild tried to deal with the shame and suddenly having no money. Neither woman is happy that Erhart, in the meantime, has been spending more and more time with the older Fanny Wilton (Cathy Belton), a free-spirited woman whose husband recently left her. Over the course of one very long night, secrets are revealed in a series of dazzling scenes filled with fast-paced dialogue beautifully delivered by the outstanding cast. Set designer Tom Pye has surrounded the stage with large piles of snow, emphasizing the coldness that has taken over the main characters’ hearts. As Ella and Gunhild, both wearing long, mournful black dresses, give one another icy stares, they drag bits of snow into the middle of the sparse room, where chairs are set up by themselves, continuing the physical and psychological isolation, which is furthered by Borkman’s often vacant eyes. As Borkman speaks with his one friend, Vilhelm (John Kavanagh), and teaches piano to Vilhelm’s daughter, Frida (Amy Molloy), upstairs, the grandfather clock in the back can be heard ticking away, counting the seconds till Borkman’s ultimate destiny. Rickman, Duncan, and Shaw so embody their characters that on January 15, when a disturbance was going on in the right front corner of the audience, Rickman calmly announced, still in Borkman’s voice, that the play should be stopped because someone appeared to be ill. After several moments, the sick man was helped out of the theater, and Rickman and Duncan returned to the scene, picking up right where they left off, as if nothing had happened, their fiery passion as palpable as ever. Although McGuinness’s version was written in response to the economic crisis in Ireland, it is impossible not to think of such figures as Bernie Madoff as the Borkmans fight over their despised name, yet JOHN GABRIEL BORKMAN still winds up a timeless, masterful piece of theater. (An Artist Talk with Duncan, Rickman, and Shaw, moderated by Paul Holdengräber, will follow the January 16 performance [$15, 6:45.])

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