David Eldridge’s new adaptation of Ibsen’s 1897 drama John Gabriel Borkman opened at the Donmar Warehouse on Tuesday night, starring Deborah Findlay, Ian McDiarmid and Penelope Wilton and directed by Donmar artistic director Michael Grandage, for a run to 14 April 2007 (See News, 14 Jul 2006).

John Gabriel Borkman has been in voluntary seclusion in an upstairs room since serving a prison sentence for embezzlement. His estranged wife Gunhild, her twin sister Ella, his son Erhart, the divorcee Mrs Wilton and Borkman himself, are all trapped in a suffocating atmosphere of their household. There are only two ways out.

Overnight critics were divided about the success of Grandage’s production; all enjoyed elements of it and compared the piece to a great work of art; but while some praised the cast for convincing portrayal of a tragic family, some felt the production was miscast and too melodramatic.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (3 stars) – “There is something timeless and tumultuous about Ibsen’s tragic drama that finally evades Michael Grandage’s fascinating production… which is taken at a fair old lick and almost leaves you gasping for breath…. Ian McDiarmid looks more like a caged wolf than either Ralph Richardson or Paul Scofield did, and he certainly rings the musical variations in his vocal delivery to compare with either of those great predecessors in the role…. I can see what Grandage is doing. He is undercutting the mystical strangeness of the play by playing it brisk. But this is also an avoidance tactic. There is much compensatory poetry in Adam Cork’s extraordinary soundscore, melding the “danse macabre” that Frida (Lisa Diveney)plays for Borkman with the icy blasts, sleigh bells and cold iron imagery from Borkman’s early days in the mines. But the third act seems to happen before anyone has felt anything, and the collision of confessions and new resolutions assumes an almost comic character…. Deborah Findlay as Gunhild finds many laughs in her stoical shrugs and bitter asides. It is left to Penelope Wilton to roar at full throttle when forcing Borkman to confront his own treachery in marrying her sister in order to prosecute his power-mad ascent to the top.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (4 stars) – “Ibsen's penultimate play is a magnificently spacious work of art… Grandage's production has an epic feel…. Grandage skilfully balances operatic intensity with savage irony. You see this in the great second act where Ian McDiarmid brings out the self-delusion of the incarcerated Borkman…. Richardson and Scofield may have imbued the last act with more wild poetry but McDiarmid captures the self-obsession of a man drunk on power… And Penelope Wilton's Ella Rentheim brilliantly reminds us that she has paid the price for Borkman's elevation of wealth above the human heart. Her desolation when Borkman informs her that ‘one woman can be replaced by another’ is unforgettable…. And the notion of women as the ultimate victims of male power-fantasies is confirmed by Deborah Findlay who turns Gunhild into a memorably embittered solitary…. This is an excellent revival.”

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (3 stars) – “Michael Grandage's anaemic, miscast revival of this late, great Ibsen drama from 1896 serves a reminder of how difficult it is to catch the right tone and bring John Gabriel Borkman to blazing theatrical life.… Grandage… does not steer a sensible line between melodramatic excess, to which Ibsen was prone, and contemporary actors' preference for a humorous, ironic and flippant take upon the playwright… Admittedly David Eldridge's new version achieves a pared-down, mock-Victorian stylishness and clarity. The production looks ideal in Peter McKintosh's sombre design…. Ian McDiarmid takes the intimidating title role… and lets it drop like half a ton of cotton wool…. Deborah Findlay… adopts the inappropriate air of a sulky, superannuated teenager. She labours mightily to scale the heights of petulance. Penelope Wilton as Gunhild's twin sister Ella, whose love Borkman rejected for the sake of Mammon, is the one player thrillingly possessed by Ibsen firepower, by fury, memorable pain and grief.”

  • Benedict Nightingale in the Times (4 stars) – “Edvard Munch, who painted quite a few himself, called Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman ‘the most powerful winter landscape in Scandinavian art’; and Michael Grandage’s taut revival certainly reinforces that view…. McDiarmid has the callousness and at times the ferocity of a monomaniac who places ambition above all else. You might call him a thinner version of Robert Maxwell, were it not for the dreamy idealism he ends up expressing, thus explaining why Ibsen consciously inserted the angelic ‘Gabriel’ between his earthier names. Wilton catches all Ella’s yearning and angst, and Findlay the bitterness, rising to intense rage, embedded in her soul. At times this produces melodramatic moments…. which remind one that David Eldridge is translating a 19th-century play. Yet to judge it by naturalistic criteria is an error. Here, it’s a stark, scary, strangely beautiful dramatic poem.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph – “It is a damnably hard piece to pull off. The tone ranges from the almost risibly melodramatic to the hauntingly poetic, while the action shifts from claustrophobic interiors to the icy freedom of the snowy mountains and forests of Norway by night…. As so often, however, the superb director Michael Grandage gets it right, in a wonderfully acted production of a powerful new translation by David Eldridge that holds the audience enthralled throughout…. There are many moments during Ian McDiarmid's remarkable performance that make one long to see him play Lear. Borkman's bitterness towards his wife, his doomed but strangely beautiful dreams of industrial power, and the egomania that suddenly, briefly disperses to reveal glimpses of wit, generosity and love are all beautifully caught…. Penelope Wilton is outstanding as the terminally ill, childless Ella, who squandered her life for him, and her scenes of love and anger with Borkman are magnificent in their full-heartedness…. Deborah Findlay is unforgettable as Ella's mean-spirited sister, her lips permanently twisted with disappointment and disapproval.”

    - by Caroline Ansdell