John Gabriel Borkman is one of Henrik Ibsen’s last and richest plays. From the opening moments when footsteps are heard pounding above the action, to the close, where two sisters, rivals in love, declare themselves to be shadows, this 1896 drama is full of penetrating sounds and images – and of writing that vaults. Yet it swings between acute psychology and whirling symbolism, and asks its audience to believe that its star monster is propelled by idealism. It is hard to pull off. Nicholas Hytner’s production, even with Simon Russell Beale, Clare Higgins and Lia Williams in the main roles is an evening of only intermittent splendours.
Borkman, an ostentatiously wealthy banker, has fallen from grace and from society. The son of a miner, he clawed his way to financial success, and adoration: in a nice touch, in Lucinda Coxon’s new version, transplanted to an approximate 21st century, he is sometimes referred to by his initials, as if he were a Norwegian JFK. Released after being imprisoned for embezzlement, he has created his own jail, living separately from his wife in the same house (his are the footsteps); estranged from her sister, whom he loved but failed to marry; distant from his son. His plans for the embezzled funds were lofty: the creation of a network of industry and transport that would change the lives of millions; all creditors would, he claims, have been quickly paid back had his cover not been blown.
It is a remarkable study of the charismatic personality, calling for an actor to slip between true vision, hollow self-aggrandisement and callous disregard. Crucially, he has to suggest mental agility and physical force: years ago the tremendous Paul Scofield missed the physicality, for all his gravelled sonority. Simon Russell Beale, who has practice as a banker in The Lehman Trilogy, hits with both barrels: his perturbed mentality is never in doubt, but he also suggests, almost without moving, a man in need of muscular stretch. Oh, and he is comically though despicably contemptuous.
Higgins, strongest when saddest, often stabs over-emphatically in speech. As the abandoned true love, Williams is enigmatically poised: looking both sly and like a saint.
The problems are not with the performances – Sebastian de Souza and Michael Simkins provide striking cameos – but with an overemphatic production. Anna Fleischle’s design – concrete walls and a Hedda Gabler stove – looms too obviously. Saint-Saëns’s Danse Macabre is played too loudly and too long. Most of all, the updating raises more problems than relevances. There are minor peculiarities: as there are no servants on stage, phones are used to summon people; why then does no one take a mobile out to the stormy wastes at the play’s end? More important, this is not a time when it is easy to suggest that a man wanting to mine the Earth’s resources is fully principled. Borkman’s plans now appear as unbridled imperialism. That diminishes what is at stake, while in the glare of the 21st century the play’s sexual politics – Borkman declares he includes his wife in the definition of himself – look harsh to the point of incredulity. An easy opposition between aspiration and affection is suggested, a sentimental idea of feminism implied. Ibsen was more interesting than that. He flares here rather than burns steadily.
The sharpest passage in Eureka Day is only murmured. A group of parents meet to discuss quarantining and vaccination during a mumps breakout at a fee-paying, bien-pensant California school: Birkenstocks, beanbags, readings from Rumi. As they furrow politely away, their voices muted, a lengthy exchange scrolls away behind them on Zoom: vaxxers and antis, Nazi insults, insults about Nazi insults, pointless picking up on the most pointless part of a message, sad faces and thumbs up (a bloke who operates only by emojis gets the biggest laughs). It has never seemed so apt that babyishly meandering chatroom comments should come in balloon shapes and colours. In a few minutes the idea of a conversation in which no one really listens while everyone contributes is neatly made.
If only the rest of Jonathan Spector’s new play lived up to this well-observed comedy. Written before the Covid pandemic, but sounding as if it might have been produced in response both to it and to the perceived dangers of “wokeness”, its satire punches at easy targets: liberal blundering and political policing. In turning over the debate between vaxxing and anti-vaxxing, the play grazes the surface of some interesting problems – most particularly when it raises the question of the influence of big pharma – but these are pop-up points rather than developed arguments.
Helen Hunt elegantly makes her part look slightly unexpected: for much of the time finely relaxed, she finally administers an unexpected sting. Susan Kelechi Watson is particularly effective as a black woman new to the predominantly white circle and patronised by its members: both forceful and bewildered, her hands as well as her voice signal frustration. Yet there is no real shift in character or perspective in the course of the evening. Everything in Katy Rudd’s quick production is as bright as Rob Howell’s primary-coloured set. Eureka Day does not provide a eureka moment.
Star ratings (out of five)
John Gabriel Borkman ★★★
Eureka Day ★★
John Gabriel Borkman is at the Bridge until 26 November