It’s a cold and lonely world that director James Macdonald and set director Tom Pye have turned the Abbey stage into. Mounds of snow frame the set on either side – in the end when all pretence of societal ambition, when all limits af civilised life are given up, the snow will take over. Before this rooms of different sizes are superimposed, greyish walls, hinting at cloudy skies, a bare, cold setting, fit for lonely people. The antique furniture does not create a feeling of comfort and cosiness – they are painful reminders of what has already been lost.
Ibsen’s slowest, barest, bleakest play is a study of walking dead. People whose lives have long been over and who come to realise this in the course of an evening. Macdonald has assembled a stellar cast who can play all nuances of desperation, desparate hope, pretended grandeur or loneliness. Fiona Shaw in particular, as the wife of the disgraced bank manager Borkman who sets all her hope in her son who she wants to restore the family honor, is frightening in her desperate bitterness, her futile struggle against annihilation. Alan Rickman, playing Borkman, is quieter, more reserved, but even more encaged in his belief in his greatness, or rather his clinging on to it despite knowing better. He resists the temptation to show of and creates much more intensity by holding back. Lindsay Duncan as Borkman’s great love and Mrs. Borkman’s sister pales a little as the most realistic, the most resigned of the protagonists.
The bleakness, the hopelessness is spot on but it’s never too much. And the main reason lies in Frank McGuinness who wrote this new, cleaner and fresher text version and James Mcdonald opting to explore the comic potential of this play that often leads to static, painfully slow and boring productions. Not much happens here, the story has been told, it’s over, except not everyone is aware of it. It’s difficult to stage but crew and cast have found a way. They turn the self-deception, the pretences of greatness, the hope against reality, they border on the ridiculous. In the hands of Rickman and Shaw in particular, the ridicolousness is released.
These are moments though which highlight the hopelessness of the aspirations rather than easing the weight of the despair. Through the laughter the walking dead become more visible. There is another temptation Macdonald avoids: He does not choose to transport the play into the present, an obvious idea in a time in which banks have become synonymous with the crisis facing the world economy. This is not a study on capitalism, it is a more universal story on human behaviour, on hope, hate, love, too, and the shells all of us hide in sometimes. The play shows what happens when we can’t leave them anymore.
The final act is a bit of a problem as finally the melodrama takes over leaving a sour taste. Up to this point though this is a well-balanced, intense production which proves the dramatic potential of this stubborn play.