John Gabriel Borkman, review: not even Simon Russell Beale can shore up Ibsen’s financial-crisis drama

Simon Russell Beale in John Gabriel Borkman, at the Bridge Theatre - Manuel Harlan
Simon Russell Beale in John Gabriel Borkman, at the Bridge Theatre - Manuel Harlan

What a week for Nicholas Hytner’s production (pandemic-delayed by two years) of Ibsen’s late play about the aftermath of self-inflicted financial disaster to land on stage, across the Thames from the jittery City of London.

But what should seem gripping and on-the-money proves frustratingly in need of a theatrical stimulus, and even the trusty bazooka of Simon Russell Beale in the lead lacks full fire-power. Given the talent on board, the deficit is odd. Disgraced banker Borkman fascinatingly resembles a forerunner of fraudsters Charles Ponzi and Bernie Madoff: his chicanery, betrayed by an ally, saw this master of the universe become a pariah after prison, emerging into a winter of isolation.

Thud-thud go Borkman’s feet above the living-room where his estranged wife Gunhild (a plaintive Clare Higgins) sits sulking. That constant clumping vividly articulates his torment and the knock-on psychological torture. The brisk evening’s problems start when Lucinda Coxon’s text gets going.

She has set the action in contemporary Oslo; we’re a world away from jingling sleighs. And JGB’s remaining friend, Foldal, is here a failed novelist, not a poet. Yet the familial and social dynamics remain antiquated – today’s shame engine, the internet, isn’t factored in; self-made Borkman, a miner’s son, identifies with Napoleon and fetishises the iron ore buried in the bowels of the earth. So, neither he nor his milieu feel fully “here and now”.

This halfway-house part-enables the later shift into a mystical gear when he slips his cage and, in a doomy gesture, makes a fresh ascent, up in the mountains. But more specifics would help. The fairly schematic nature of the original is treacherous enough; having made some strides in innovation, Coxon needs to go the extra mile.

Not helped by an airy set-design that strands items of furniture (including an encumbering low sofa) and oddly perches the piano-playing Frida Foldal (deft Daisy Ou), a stiff, creaky Beale isn’t quite in his element, though he looks the part with his ship-wrecked mariner’s beard and stern aura of self-absorption.

For all the character’s misogyny, he enlists our sympathy: sitcom-funny alongside Michael Simkins as the equally self-deceiving Foldal, while shards of buried pain go rivetingly flying in his confrontations with a pale, frail Lia Williams as the terminally sick sister-in-law he romantically threw over to climb the corporate ladder. Sour, regretful Ibsen still has much to tell us about the human cost of success – but his grim tidings need lustier pickaxe strokes.

Until Nov 26. Tickets: 0333 320 0052; bridgetheatre.co.uk