JOHN GABRIEL BORKMAN Alan Rickman, Lindsay Duncan, and Fiona Shaw
Credit: Richard Termine

John Gabriel Borkman

It’s easy to see why Ireland’s Abbey Theatre decided to revive Henrik Ibsen’s seldom-performed drama John Gabriel Borkman, now playing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater through Feb. 6. The title character is a banker who’s been sent to prison for embezzling funds from his clients, disgracing both himself and his family. Think a late-19th-century Norwegian Bernie Madoff, with a haughty, big-spending wife, Gunhild (played by the remarkable Fiona Shaw), who’s both unapologetic and bent on restoring her tarnished reputation at any cost. ”How was I to know,” she asks her twin sister, Ella (Lindsay Duncan), ”it wasn’t his money to squander?”

Unfortunately, it’s also easy to see why Ibsen’s penultimate play is so seldom revived. The basic plot is thin, and remarkably conventional, and there’s little that the all-star cast or director James Macdonald’s striking physical production can do to make up for that. Alan Rickman, the British actor best known as Severus Snape in the Harry Potter films, brings his rich voice to the role of Borkman, but he seems oddly somnambulent through the first act, when the banker is holed up in the upstairs of his estate in a self-imposed exile following his prison sentence. He delusionally believes that he’ll be sought out for another position of prominence — by someone, anyone — but the scenes seem enervated, as if he had wandered onto the set of Harry Potter and the Deathly Pauses.

Things perk up considerably when the women are on stage, though. Gunhild and Ella clash as they battle for the attention and affection of John Gabriel and Gunhild’s twentysomething son, Erhart (Marty Rea), who had been sent to live with Ella as a boy when the scandal was in its full bloom. Erhart, though, shows little interest in acting out his mother’s mission for social redemption or his aunt’s desire for companionship. He has been spending his evenings with a slightly older divorcée (the sprightly Cathy Belton, reminiscent of a young Helen Mirren), who has a gifted and pretty young music student she’s taken under her wing (Amy Molloy). You can imagine how this ends. And you’d be right.

These are basically selfish people whose interaction with others is dictated mostly by their own interests and desires. Until the final moments of the play, in fact, there is little sense of genuine human connection. So as entertaining as some of the clashes between these characters can be, it’s difficult to rouse much sympathy for any of them. The acts of others, like acts of nature (including the second act’s impressive onstage blizzard), are well beyond their control. Even that great leveler, death, cannot be made subject to their unbending will. B-

(Tickets: or 718-636-4100)

John Gabriel Borkman
  • Stage