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John Gabriel Borkman at the Abbey Theatre

The Abbey is very much selling Frank McGuinness’ adaptation of Henrik Ibsin’s John Gabriel Borkman as a timely piece of work. Set during a recession and focusing on a former banker who has managed to avoid squalor by assuring his property ends up in the hands of his sister-in-law (though she bought it at auction rather than the fact he assigned it to her), it is an easy enough sell in modern Ireland. However, the play’s themes are much more universal than that – it’s a story about our attempts to live vicariously through others and attempt to define ourselves contrary to whatever plans those around us might have, a reflection on how easily and readily we construct elaborate cages for ourselves (but cages that we insist are actually throne rooms). However, the main draw to this theatrical run – and perhaps the factor behind its near-constantly sold-out status – is a lead performance from Alan Rickman as the eponymous banker-turned-outcast.

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It’s an interesting choice for a play headlining the actor – Rickman himself does not appear until the second act, but his presence hangs over the play from the moment the curtain is raised (with the sound of echoing pacing footsteps from the study upstairs). The audience know he is there – and the production team know that we know that he’s there. When Rickman does appear, he’s every bit as you might imagine from his performances. The voice is wonderfully acoustical, and delivers observations with a jaded cynicism that captures the mood perfectly. His hands gesture perfectly. His pacing is down to an art. There’s no conscious attempt to hide his own stylistic tics in the role, and it’s a smart move – he doesn’t try to demolish the audiences expectations of him, rather he builds up the character he is playing.

Borkman makes an interesting choice for the lead in this ensemble piece. Though it becomes apparent in the final act why the play carries his make, the bulk of the drama is arguably split between the two female leads. Rickman never attempts to upstage Fiona Shaw or Lindsay Duncan – in fact, both relish what seem to be much meaty roles – but he does find something of Borkman which makes the character come alive.

The rest of the cast is equally impressive. Lindsay Duncan, most recently seen in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland or last year’s Doctor Who special The Waters of Mars, has perhaps the best role in the play as the family’s now-enriched aunt Ella, clearly enjoying the role and playing well off co-star Fiona Shaw. John Kavanagh, a regular at the Abbey, shows up in a small supporting role as Borkman’s last remaining friend.

Aside from the impressive performances, the play features quite simply astounding production design – a reminder of what the National Theatre is capable of when it puts its mind to it. The sets themselves are impressive constructed in shades of dull grey, with blotches of shading calling to mind the cloud constantly hovering over the family. Snow is barely kept at bay at the edge of the stage, with the strong white line delineating between “in” and “out”. Simply put, the stage looks incredible and is skilfully lit. The scene transitions are impressive and efficient, with structures literally falling from the sky to trap the actors within these familiar-looking boxes. The lighting and sound design are equally efficient, with the dull greys never being washed out or becoming intrusive.

John Gabriel Borkman is a fine adaptation of a fine play. It’s a well put-together production with top marks from a technical perspective, and a superb cast delivering the lines. If you can get a ticket, I wholeheartedly recommend it.

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