Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival
John Gabriel Borkman The Abbey Theatre, DublinWe hear John Gabriel Borkman long before we see him. The unrepentant antihero of Ibsen’s penultimate drama is announced by the sound of his pacing. Slow and directionless, those footsteps reverberate as heavily as the contemporary resonance of public betrayal and personal accountability in Frank McGuinness’s new version of the play.
Here is a disgraced banker, who has spent five years in jail for embezzlement, now confined to a home he no longer owns, with a wife he does not see, in unwavering denial for his misdeeds. The play remains a study in isolation, moral bankruptcy and lifelessness.
No warmth enters this world: when Borkman’s wife Gunhild, magnificently played by Fiona Shaw, confesses happiness for her son, whom she hopes will restore the family name, she adds, “I feel this other thing like ice inside me”. Yet it is Lyndsay Duncan’s Ella, her sister and Borkman’s abandoned love, who most resembles an ice queen: white-blonde and pale, seeking custody of Marty Rea’s Erhart, delivering her words with glacial determination.
Borkman, when he appears, is reserved, clenched and saturnine, which is to say he is played by Alan Rickman. The space around Rickman’s ostracised megalomaniac seems to grow, his posing and pacing more aimless, his pronouncements more irredeemable (“When I say myself,” he tells a protesting Gunhild, identifying those his actions have damaged, “I include you and him.”) James Macdonald’s production struggles to depict such emotional and moral stasis without itself becoming inert. Tom Pye’s set addresses the problem through reflection and abstraction, creating translucent borders like walls of compacted frost, with snow, snow everywhere, ultimately accentuating emptiness. At one point Macdonald even amplifies the ticking of a grandfather clock as though listlessness might twist into something surreal.
There is much intellectual justification for such wintry characterisation, but only Shaw and John Kavanagh find life in a text constantly foreshadowing death. The bewildered inflection Shaw gives a line like “What do you want to live for?” emphasises a discrepancy in approach that goes beyond the production’s distractingly mismatching accents, making McGuinness’s voice hard to find.
Duncan reserves emotional display for the moment Ella dissolves, accusing Borkman of killing his soul and hers, and while Rickman suggests Borkman’s isolating defiance through extinguished candles, late glances, and, most affectingly, by clinging so hopefully to Erhart he might smother him by accident, we never see the caged wolf Gunhild describes. His destruction is total, but even he knows that he died long ago.
Until Nov 20
L’Effet de Serge
Samuel Beckett Theatre
Conceived, directed and designed by Phillipe Quesne, L’Effet de Sergeis a playful philosophical riddle. Set in Serge’s sparely decorated apartment, it is structured by a series of small performances which take place every Sunday for invited guests (played by a local cast). A magic candle sparkles in a spinning toy-truck, fluorescent lights dance to music, the headlamps of a car are choreographed to create their own symphony. “Time passes, time passes,” between each performance, and Serge sits in silence, watching TV, eating pizza, occasionally doing nothing at all. He reads aloud a passage from Beckett’s Stirrings Still, drawing us into conversation with the existential issues at the heart of the performance piece: Serge’s weekly performances provide structure and meaning to his life.
The performances themselves are underwhelming, but the reaction they provoke for his invited audience help Serge to find connections that enliven the mundane aspects of his life.
“All of our performances begin with the end of the last one,” Gaetan Vourc’h, playing Serge, tells us as he wanders onto the dimly lit stage in the opening moments dressed in a space suit. Exploring his own apartment with meticulous detail, he sets a meditative, melancholy tone that persists throughout.
There are moments of humour, the sequence in which he dances with glow-sticks in particular, and moments of cute recognition. Ultimately, however, L’Effet de Sergetreads a very thin line between endearing and irritating. “Time passes. Time passes,” we are told over and over. And yes, that is life, the slow steady march of time in which sometimes nothing happens at all.
But this is also the theatre, where just a little bit more drama would not go astray.
The Danton Case
Project Arts Centre / Space Upstairs
When Robespierre says that the “common good neutralises all laws”, it becomes apparent that his French revolution has degenerated into a bloody dictatorship. His discourse is that of contradiction and paradox: black is white and white is black. In director Jan Klata’s version of this Polish classic, this contradiction is the natural state of politics, and like power, politics always perverts.
Performed in Polish with English surtitles, this production makes for an uneasy cultural transplantation. The apparent nods to post-Communist Polish politics go over the heads of many in the audience, while the wordy text is badly served by out-of-sync and too rapidly projected surtitles.
However, the sheer verve of the baroque-punk aesthetic of the staging goes some way to keeping interest romping along. Ostentatious wigs and bodices are set in counterpoint to a contemporary soundtrack, including T-Rex’s Children of the Revolution– and the combined effect rests somewhere between kitsch and camp.
Amid a shanty-town set of boxes, director Klata is faithful to playwright Przybyszewska’s original ambivalence towards Robespierre and his political rival Danton.
In their struggle to lead post-revolutionary France, each finds the tension between idealism and pragmatism even more pronounced in a fight to the death. With the terrifying shadow of the guillotine looming for the vanquished, the dirty and deadly game of politics is exposed in all its cynicism.
It is a cynicism that reaches its apex in Robespierre’s “Reign of Terror” – dramatised by a surreal swirl of nonsensical action that sees the play disintegrate into a psychedelic heap. It was a final grotesque flourish that proved too much for one audience member, who headed early for the door.
A Game of You
Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin
First impressions last in A Game of You, the concluding part of Ontroerend Goed’s fascinating and invigorating trilogy of intimate experiences. If The Smile Off Your Faceand Internalasked audiences to place their trust in performance while wondering, routinely, if they were wise to do so, the final instalment offers something extraordinary: an outer-body experience.
In structure and content the Belgian company has created something like a hall of mirrors, one in which observation and performance lets us see ourselves at different angles – through our own words or the eyes of others – while waiting rooms, looking glasses and corridors of red curtains suggest a place somewhere between the theatre and wonderland. Here we meet people we don’t instantly recognise, joining us for conversations in booths or meeting us in corridors, the most dizzying depictions being images of ourselves.
This game is user-defined – your experience of it will be as unique as your fingerprint – but the company allows you to appreciate its artful structure, an assembly line of personality, scrutiny and mimicry. As in the earlier productions, the performers get up close and personal, yet display nothing of themselves and there is something in that discrepancy between creator and participant that seems unfair.
Then again, who ever said it was about them? At the end of a journey that is both wicked and oddly reassuring, we are left with one particularly arch memento. Whether or not you feel that they “got” you, they certainly help you to get yourself, holding a mirror up to society, one person at a time.