John Gabriiel Borkman was Henrik Ibsen's Wuthering Heights. But, instead of a mad woman in the attic, he has a megalomaniac industrialist suffering proto-fascist delusions of grandeur - John Gabriel Borkman. In his youth, Borkman's vision was to borrow money to mine the iron reserves of Norway and bring unfettered capitalism to the world. But then the bank pulled the plug on him and slung him in jail. Now in old age Borkman sees himself as betrayed genius rather than a discredited egotist. And his delusions cover his personal life too as he scorns both the woman he married and the woman he loved.
Ibsen's drama is an overblown piece that haughtily descends into stern-faced farce. This is especially true at the end when Borkman takes to the snow swept wilderness and raves about his vision for mankind. Not even David Eldridge's sober, fluent and considered ‘version' of the play can restrain its lumbering pomposity. The most interesting thing you can say is that Borkman's story seems to reflect Ibsen's guilt at the end of a life devoted to his writing and the exclusion of all else - including his family and his soul.
Michael Grandage sees to it that with the nearby Theatre Museum now closed he is the undisputed chief taxidermist of Covent Garden. His production is as impressive and impassive as a stuffed grisly in a glass cabinet - eyes gleaming, mouth growling, but not in the least bit threatening. In line with this, Ian McDiarmid turns Borkman into a nasally narcissist who sees himself as a reincarnation of the Napoleonic spirit, misunderstood by the petty herd. He is impressively arrogant but in a way that's funny not frightening. He even sounds like a hissy 10 year old child when he loses his temper.
More fierce and a good deal less affected is Penelope Wilton as the love of his life. In one righteous outburst she practically blows McDiarmid off the stage. By contrast, Deborah Findlay as the neglected wife, is so angry with Borkman that she can barely breathe and is sick with desperation for revenge that she intends to take through her son. The son however, played by Rafe Spall, intends to elope with a voluptuous neighbour played by Lolita Chakrabarti. She is every mother's worst nightmare with her unconciliatory confidence and staggering cleavage. Yet for all such corseted sensuality and Nietszchean soul searching in the darkness of Scandinavian winter, this is a fossil of a play rendered here as a mere historical curiosity.