There’s a reason why you don’t see Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman performed that often. It’s because the way the play is constructed--it all takes place on a single night--makes it look like a parody of the well-made play. Here’s a guy who embezzled money, went to jail for five years, and has lived upstairs from his wife for eight years and never once laid eyes on her--except for tonight, when he finally comes downstairs. And why does it happen tonight? Because that’s what happens in a well-made play, it all has to happen tonight. Which is ridiculous. Eight years pacing back and forth upstairs? Really? Why not ten? Why not twelve?
The thematic answer--because Ibsen is rather obviously showing how people get frozen into repetitive or self-destructive behavior--is the one answer which is totally undermined by the play’s construction. It’s like Ibsen had a twentieth-century idea which he could only express using nineteenth-century tools. It'd make a great movie, especially given the Madoff-relevance of the title character's crime. But as a play, it feels like a Dickens novel with its head and legs cut off to fit a theatrical bed; and because it’s compressed into three hours, it looks about as silly as Bleak House would look if you staged it as a series of cross-examinations in Chancery.
There’s an entire romantic subplot too. Because Borkman’s wife Gunhild has a twin sister Ella whom Borkman really loved but he gave her up to a colleague who was crazy about her so that the colleague would give him the bank job which Borkman used to embezzle money from his clients, and then when the twin sister rejected the colleague, the colleague dropped a dime on Borkman’s embezzling, which was the real reason he went to jail--and the reason why Borkman has been spending the last eight years waiting to be vindicated and restored to his former position of power. Got all that? (Good--now explain it to me, could ya?)
And wait--there’s more! Not only does everyone in the play wallow in the past like hogs in a temporal pigsty, they all look to Borkman Junior to save themselves, even as Young Borkman is keeping company with a cradle-robbing neighbor of dubious marital history. Gunhild wants Junior to redeem the Borkman name, and never leave her side (cough) Freud (cough), Borkman wants him to be his companion in his climb from the bottom to the heights (cough) redemption (cough), and Ella wants him to be her surrogate son in her final years, which are actually her final couple of months (cough) cough (cough).
All of which requires acrobatics at a Cirque de Soleil level from a troupe of actors, said acrobatics (just like in Cirque de Soleil) being the prime reason to go see this show. Fiona Shaw proves yet again that she is so talented that she can build an entirely believable character out of one adjective (peevish). Lindsay Duncan plays weary so well that when she finally erupts, it’s both shocking and embarrassing. And Alan Rickman slaloms through his long speeches, swallowing some words and pausing over others, like a man who has been down this mountain so many times he knows exactly where the slippery spots are. True, they bounce off the script more than they bounce off each other, but if you ever want to see how talented actors can carry the weight of a heavy play on their shoulders and make it look like dancing, you’ve got three prime examples here.
I just wish their performances were warmer. But it’s not a warm play. And you get that the second you walk into the Harvey--the set looks like an unplowed side-street in Brooklyn, which becomes a wind-blown unplowed main street in Staten Island by the final act. There’s no warmth between the characters either; just the cold ashes of dead fires. In which, if you sift through them, you will find the remains of a particular species of well-made play as a delivery system for a story that spans 15 to 20 years. Other types will live on (All My Sons, anybody?) but watching this production, you get the sense that it’s not just Borkman who succumbs to a cold hand of iron at the end, like a dinosaur killed by climate change--it’s this style of drama.