‘John Gabriel Borkman’ review – Simon Russell Beale is a scarcely striking swindler in sombre snooze fest


Lucinda Coxon’s revamp of John Gabriel Borkman, one of Ibsen’s final works, is the longest hour and 45 minutes you’ll spend in a theatre. Lively, energetic piano playing from Fridal Foldal (Daisy Ou), several drawn-out scene changes and a bottle of Cola fail completely to refresh Nicholas Hytner’s bloated direction.

Lines linger in silence for too long, Anna Fleischle’s stretched set doesn’t match the timid trepidation of the Borkman family, and the constant, hypnotic thrumming in the background could very well send you to sleep.

The Lehman Trilogy’s Simon Russell Beale plays Borkman, a convicted fraudster who’s just been released back into society. His wife Gunhild (Doctor Who’s Clare Higgins) and her twin sister Ella (His Dark Materials’ Lia Williams) are the ones arguing over the family legacy Borkman has ended up destroying. It falls into the classic Ibsen drama in that traditionalism is under threat, and should deliver the devastating, winding one-two of simmering tension and an explosive release.

Yet, Hytner’s production lacks containment and the concise. Beale as a wandering, pondering Borkman just about manages to imply a troubled psyche – and later so does a dying Ella – but the claustrophobic feel we typically get with an Ibsen, which generates a certain gravitas, is practically non-existent. Dialogue lacks weight and importance, to the extent that the inevitable shouting match – while jolting the drowsier audience members awake – doesn’t carry the significant impact that would have come with more time to build up the characters and hammer home the conflict. The acting is commendable; its staging less so.

Sometimes the beautiful irony of Ibsen is finding magnitude in the minuscule. Coxon’s reworking of John Gabriel Borkman – almost Lear like in its final scenes – buckles under its enormity. It’s tiring, strained, and devoid of punchy precision.

John Gabriel Borkman is now playing at the Bridge Theatre until 26 November.

Audio described and captioned performances will take place on 5 and 12 November respectively.

Production Images: Manuel Harlan.

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