(My Father) John Gabriel Borkman

Mon 7th – Sat 26th August 2017

reviews

Katrina Gaffney

at 08:46 on 22nd Aug 2017

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The premise of (My Father) John Gabriel Borkman was certainly an intriguing one. It is the story of a banker who has returned home after some time in prison for the role he played in the collapse of his bank; the twist is the whole story is told through the eyes of his son. This show had the potential to be gripping but ultimately the writing failed to deliver, resulting in a disappointing experience.

The whole story was performed by Edwin (the son of John) and his wife Fran. Essentially we were watching an actor play Edwin, who was playing various characters in the retelling of his father’s return home after his time in prison. Initially I was impressed with this idea and I thought it was a clever choice that could add layers to the narrative. However, I quickly came to find this unusual structure to be rather frustrating. Edwin and Fran would often break character in their retelling; this added little to the show but was often at crucial moments in the story. Any feelings of momentum were quickly lost when Edwin proclaimed he could no longer continue telling the tale (although he was always hastily roped back in by Fran). The story within a story can potentially be an effective technique but in this instance I felt that is was an just a futile addition to the play.

Moreover, lots of the dialogue in the play was embellished with unnecessary flourishes and often I found myself wishing the characters would just get to the point. My problem with the show was that there were several elements that I found to be needless. Even parts of the set, such as a whiteboard which Edwin and Fran used as a map of Edwin’s house and a way of keeping track of different character’s location, felt like they were included in an attempt to perhaps make the show seem a little cleverer than it was in reality.

I must commend Andrei Csolsim and Hannah Harris who played Edwin and Fran (as well as a whole host of other characters). There were scenes where they switched from character to character at such a pace I almost found it difficult to keep up and yet they pulled it off with relative ease. Harris, in particular, shone in all the roles she took on and, at moments, I found her performance to be quite captivating. Both actors did well considering the material they were dealing with.

My issue was not with the execution of the play but rather with the play itself. It tries to be clever but this just results in a story which feels disjointed. I thought a play about a jailed banker and his son would be hard hitting, instead I found the show to be a little limp.

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Tamsin Bracher

at 09:30 on 22nd Aug 2017

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At the hands of the Fox and Orchid Theatre Company, Henrik Ibsen’s penultimate play, ‘John Gabriel Borkman’, receives a radical and pertinently contemporary update. Based on a brand new translation, it has been transformed into a compact two-hander told from the perspective of Edwin (played by Andrei Csolsim) and his partner Fran (played by Hannah Harris). The story of banker John Gabriel Borkman’s imprisonment, sentenced for the embezzlement of customers assets, and his release is told mainly through the eyes of his son, Edwin, many years after the event: ‘Now’, the programme details, ‘Edwin wants to tell the story himself - the story of his family’.

And it is the desire to tell ‘the real story’ that makes this production both original and innovative. The Fox and Orchid Theatre Company refocuses Ibsen’s work on the relationship between John Gabriel Borkman and his son (hence the addition of ‘(My Father)’ to the title) and the fact that Edwin and Fran play all seven characters introduces a meta-theatrical element to the production, posing questions of perspective and interpretation. At points in the play Edwin and Fran interrupt their illusion, often when it gets ‘too much’ for Edwin to impersonate his father’s cruel dialogue – ‘I’m sure no one minds if we skip over the bickering’, ‘all of my elders say unkind things that I don’t want to repeat’. Andrei and Hannah expertly convey the play’s self-consciousness; right from the opening scene, the audience is asked to participate in the performance, addressed with the introductory words ‘you all know that, that’s why you’re here’. The formal uncertainty that is established every time they occupy a different role offers a potent opportunity to examine the relationship between fiction and reality, the world of the play and the world outside the play: which should we believe?

Although the tangle of personality changes could easily have become confusing or overly-laboured, at no point during the performance of ‘(My Father) John Gabriel Borkman’ did this happen – the acting was superb, the energy all-consuming, and Andrei and Hannah presented the show with consummate skill. The clarity of the performance was further aided by Invi Brenna’s creative directorial vision. For example, the seven characters were represented by seven props (a scarf, tea cup, dog, satchel, keyboard, glasses and overcoat), which not only called attention to particular facets of personality but were taken up by the actors to indicate a shedding of one person’s skin and the taking up of another. A whiteboard, with a house drawn on, existed at the back of the stage, and seven magnets (one for each prop) were moved about on it during the show to illustrate where the characters were in relation to one another. The minimalism of the set, the black-and-white costumes, and the elemental lighting not only stood in stark contrast to John Gabriel Borkman’s almost satanic obsession with the ‘slumbering spirits of gold’, but also offered a stripped-back space in which the actors could perform. And it was their extraordinary talent that carried the full weight of the show. With a vitality that left enough room for poignancy, Andrei and Hannah gave a visual display of great beauty, concluding with the image of ‘us two shadows’, an ‘ice cold band of ore’ gripping a heart and the echoing declarations of John Gabriel Borkman – ‘life is work’ – in the face of his son’s alternative, ‘I just want to live’, ‘live for happiness’.

I am giving this show four stars but it has all the potential for five. A performance to watch out for.

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