This multifaceted production of Ibsen’s late masterpiece John Gabriel Borkman has intriguing performances, excellent direction and a brilliant stylistic and compact rendering of the story. The performance lasts for 90 minutes and never fails in its delivery of Ibsen’s dark, psychological preoccupations

For those expecting the usual Ibsen drawing-room naturalism with its heavy velvet curtains, thick rugs and the mores of Norwegian polite society, the great surprise is this production is totally non-naturalistic, queer and almost dance-like. Dance in the sense that many scenes included gestures, robotic movement and stamping that helped to engender the sense of the subtext and also the emotions of the characters. The actors are to be commended on their command of the dialogue, their confidence in their director (Peter King) and the sheer emotional and physical force they brought to their performances.

Sitting in the intimate space at La Mama an arm’s length away from the actors is always a treat. You are with the characters so closely, sharing the space. The story revolves around twin sisters Gunhild Borkman (Cory Corbett) and Ella Rentheim (Ezel Doruk) and their quest for the affection of Gunhild’s son Erhart Borkman(Will Freeman). All the while Gunhild’s husband John Gabriel (Jim Daly) lives above the household, staying isolated in his own room visited only by a pianist and an old friend Vilhelm Foldal (Russell Walsh). John Gabriel had been disgraced following a fraud he committed many years before and consequently served time in prison. He is now destitute after suffering from the rejection of his son and wife and having to withstand her ‘mission’ to seek revenge on him and at the same time restore dignity to the family name.

The use of an all-male cast served to convey the universality of the themes present in the play promoting a sense of the ‘everyman’.  Is it the younger generation task to rectify the sins of their elders/parents? How does a person escape the clutches of a dysfunctional family? Happiness comes in many guises and when it comes our way, we should take it no matter what. Finally, the play explores the character flaws of greed and arrogance that can set us on a path of destitution. We must face up to the consequences of our youth and it is only truth that can save you from despair, Ibsen seems to be saying.

Moreover, the queer flavour of having the female characters performed by an all male cast, the male voices and the wearing of simple, conservative suits, added so much humour to this usually cold and cruel play. The rapid fire and stylized delivery of the lines reminded me of Stephen Berkhoff’s productions of the 1990s where actors in suits spoke lines in all manner of ways and used staccato gestures to convey meaning. The first act with the two sisters was particularly compelling. The two actors literally rubbed cheeks and clasped shoulders delivering their venomous but polite banter at each other. In fact the play was full of moments when the actors were almost glued to one another’s faces, lips towards lips, ears rubbing against cheeks. It was refreshing and subversive the way Ibsen’s realistic lines were handled by director and cast. 

The painter Edvard Munch once described the play as “the most powerful winter landscape in Scandinavian art”. It has an icy austerity. It depicts events during one winter’s evening and the setting exudes a sense of faded elegance. It has references to cold hands and cold metals from the earth. Ella tells us that Borkman has died, “it was an icy iron hand that gripped his heart.” The cold design by Peter Corrigan was brilliant in its simplicity. The icy effect of the characters’ surroundings and their interiors was represented by wall-to-wall bubble wrap that glistened prettily yet coldly under the wonderful lighting of Greg Carroll. The final scene where Borkman dies in the snow saw the wrap being used effectively. There were only two other features that made up the set; a moss green club lounge one-seater (faded décor and Gunhild’s only bit of comfort left in life) and a large foreboding print of Occasio, the bald but forelocked woman who represents fortune/opportunity.

Daly’s sad and antediluvian Borkman was a stand out. With a heightened realistic acting style he conveyed the tragic figure of Borkman who looks towards his grave having lost his money, the little love he had, status, his only friend and his family. This Lear-esque character was superbly depicted. Daly’s face at times became crinkled and quivering and he executed manic movements and used a gently malevolent voice that engaged the audience for the entire time. He even saved the often melodramatic Act 3 (where the twin sisters and Borkman vie for the love of Erhart) with some amusing antics alongside Corbett and Ella playing the twin sisters.

This bijou production of Ibsen’s play will surely stand as a highlight of this year’s Fringe Festival. An experienced and talented director steers a dedicated cast to resuscitate one of Ibsen’s masterpieces from the late 19th century.