There is no difficulty, to paraphrase P G Wodehouse, in distinguishing between the playwright Henrik Ibsen and a ray of sunshine. His blithest of plays make a particularly grim episode of EastEnders look, on paper at least, the preferable option.
John Gabriel Borkman, his penultimate work, is par for the course. On the family estate outside Oslo at the turn of the 19th century, John Gabriel Borkman, once a famous entrepreneur but now ruined following a prison sentence for embezzlement, paces his room. His wife, her twin sister and his son sit below, trapped in the now claustrophobic and loveless household.
Borkman is the fifth Ibsen production by the multi award-winning English Touring Theatre whose director, Stephen Unwin, has been described by one newspaper critic as the finest director of Ibsen in this country. It’s fair to assume that Unwin, whose highly acclaimed 2002 production of King Lear can still be seen in the West End, is in line for more critical bouquets in 2003.
The set, by Neil Warmington is beautiful, and beautifully sets the scene for what is to come. Centre stage are a few props, betokening a dour domesticity: a chair or two, a stove and a lamp on a table. Beyond, behind a muslin curtain, we see a wintry landscape with a bare silver birch (reminiscent of the tree in Waiting for Godot) over which a moon rises; snow is falling.
"I want to live, live, live," cries Erhart (James Loye), Borkman’s son, near the close of this two-and-a half hour play and it is this theme - that of individual liberty and its attainment through the exercise of free will - that is the overriding concern of Ibsen’s oeuvre and that makes his writing speak so powerfully and resonantly, more than a century after it was written.
Borkman features first-rate ensemble playing. Michael Pennington excels in the title role, blind to his wrongs, the least of which is wreaking financial misery on his creditors. James Loye, recently seen in Small Change at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre and Dealers Choice at the Birmingham Rep offers fine support, but for me, the performances of Gillian Barge, as Borkman’s embittered wife, Gunhilde, and Linda Bassett as her sister, Ella Rentheim, are the highlights of this fine production.