John Gabriel Borkman - National Theatre 1996

Saturday, 17 August, 1996
Review by: 
Alan Bird

Ella Rentheim (Gunhild's twin sister) also a former lover of Borkman, has returned to seek medical help. She does not have long to live and wishes to spend the rest of her days with Borkman's son, Erhart. Ella had fostered Erhart for a while, until Gunhild had sorted out her life after the bankruptcy. She had got very close to him and became the most important person in her life. What follows is a struggle for the son by the mother and her sister who both adore him so much they smother him. At the same time Borkman converses with his only friend, Vilhelm Foldal. Both having dreams of glory, Borkman for a comeback and Vilhelm for his ambition to be a playwright.

This is a very emotional play with occasional light humour. The acting is of the very highest quality with the possible exception of Paul Scofield who played Borkman. He looked the part and he gave an authoritative sound and feel to the character that looked right. However, he was homogeneous, unable to express the emotion and torment that Borkman was obviously feeling.

Venessa Redgrave who plays Ella Rentheim, and Eileen Atkins who plays Mrs Gunhild Borkman are a sensation. You won't see these characters played much better. You can really believe in them and feel all the psychological torture they are going through. Michael Bryant who played Borkman's friend, Vilhelm Foldal was also excellent . His character, you felt more warmth for, a very charming and kind man.

A simple set by Anthony Ward consists of a room with not a lot in it, but it captures the mood well, and is easily changed from the living room to the upstairs room when needed. There is a very convincing outside scene at the end with the snow falling on the hills, it all looked very authentic.

A wonderfully written play that is well acted, and even if Scofield never quite pulls it off, it is still a joy to watch.

(Darren Dalglish)

With Richard Eyre's reign at the national nearly at an end, he must be delighted with this wonderful production. Eyre has produced many good things at the National but until now very few would say that he had staged a superb performance of a classic play. With 'John Gabriel Borkman' this can no longer be said.

The play is about two twin sisters Gunheld and Ella, who once fought for the love of John Gabriel Borkman. Sadly, John Gabriel Borkman was unable to return their love since his heart and mind was set upon financial and social power.

Borkman, believing he was on some great social mission to redeem the masses, conceived that his actions were above conventional moral concerns, and he was finally disgraced and jailed for defrauding the customers of his bank. Consequently his wife and child are ruined and it's his sister-in-law who comes to the rescue providing an estate for his wife, and by rearing his child.

When Borkman is released from prison his delusion continues, believing he has been wronged he locks himself away in the upstairs room waiting for those who jailed him to beg him to return to social life. Meanwhile, his wife and his now grown up son live downstairs, with his wife plotting how too remove the shadow of shame cast upon their lives by Borkman.

When John Borkman's sister-in-law Ella moves to the city, the pent up passions of father, wife, son and sister-in-law begin to emerge. Each have their own agenda to establish either love, family name or former glory. The sisters having once fought for the love of John Borkman now fight for the love of his son Erhart.

Vanessa Redgrave and Eileen Atkins give superb performances and these two woman steal the show from Paul Scofield, who's John Gabriel Borkman loses centre stage. In Scofield's portrayal of Borkman the character's indifference for the more 'mundane' human emotions of love and loyalty are clearly portrayed. However, what should be his mad burning passion for "his kingdom, his power and his glory" which he sees as his destiny to possess, instead becomes the demented ravings of a sad lonely man and not those of a power hungry egotist. At the end of the play I still wondered what replaced 'love' in Borkman's life, from Paul Scofield's performance, whatever it was, it certainly was not ambition.

Michael Bryant who plays Vilhelm Foldal, Borkman's only friend, gives a wonderful warmth and compassion to his character, and Felicity Dean who plays Mrs Wilton managers to bring great vitality to her role. Felicity Dean has few lines compared to the main characters but her deliverance matches the sparkling performance of Redgrave and Atkins.

A good play, a good night for British Theatre, and a chance to see two great actresses triumph at their art.


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