Review by E. Lisa Moses
The Stratford Festival’s production of Henrik Ibsen’s “John Gabriel Borkman” reminds us that winter in Norway gets pretty frosty. In Ibsen’s penultimate play, translated into English by Paul Walsh and directed by Carey Perloff, we can easily believe that it’s colder inside the family manor than outdoors. In the winter of his life, former bank manager Borkman, played by Scott Wentworth, obsesses about the trial that sentenced him to an eight-year prison term for embezzling his clients’ life savings to invest in a failed mining scheme. Since his release eight years ago, Borkman has been living in a self-imposed prison — the upstairs floor of his home.
Photo by David Hou
There, he paces day and night as he incessantly reruns the trial in his head to find himself guilty of nothing but ambition. In his arrogance, he believes that the world will thaw and come to pay homage like his misguided and delusional admirer Vilhalm, enacted by Joseph Ziegler.
Borkman’s embittered wife Gunhild, played by Lucy Peacock, and spoiled 20-something son Erhart, portrayed by Antoine Yared, live downstairs in a prison of their own. Deeply humiliated by her husband’s fall from grace and prominence, Gunhild will have nothing to do with him and fantasizes about climbing back up the social ladder on Erhart’s coattails. He has other plans, however, that include partying and hanging out with Mrs. Fanny Wilton, a fancy older divorcée played by Sarah Afful.
The drama heats up when Gunhild’s twin sister Ella, in a strong personation by Seana McKenna, pays a surprise visit with her own agenda – to adopt Erhart and have him live with her while she is dying. She also holds the purse strings (Borkman had left her investments intact since they had once been lovers). Dressed in funereal black gowns, the sisters circle each other like vultures in their struggle for power. But there are no winners here.
Under Perloff’s able direction, the strong performances keep the negative energy swirling around like snow. However, the glacial pace of the play along with over-the-top symbolism and dated melodrama simply left me cold.
John Gabriel Borkman is playing at the Tom Patterson Theatre until September 23.