It was with some trepidation that the West End Whingers entered the Donmar Warehouse last night. Its new version of John Gabriel Borkman (Henrik Ibsen’s penultimate play) is by fellow blogosphere inhabitant David Eldridge.
Now Eldridge’s One Writer and his Dog is a regular read for us and it (probably inadvertently) delivers us a steady stream of unsuspecting readers. Supposing we hated Borkman ? Would the West End Whingers replace Quentin Letts (who “continues to plough a solitary philistine furrow as he styles himself as the voice of Rover 400 man”) as Mr Eldridge’s principal object of disdain? While we never worry about being liked or popular (fortunately for us), site traffic is an altogether more serious matter.
It is rare for a Whinger to employ the epithet “superb” so you can imagine the shock on Andrew’s face at Phil’s ejaculation of said adjective during the interval. When he later caught Phil scrawling the words “lucid, clear poetry” in his notebook, Andrew was on the verge of inserting a thermometer – hopefully an oral one would be nearest to hand – and phoning for an ambulance. From whence had this hitherto unseen lyricism and joie de theatre suddenly sprung?
And who is to blame for this unexpected change of tone? Eldridge? Director Michael Grandage? The acting ensemble? Well, all of them.
Let’s start with the play. In contrast to last nights endurance test of The Entertainer, Ibsen’s play seems timeless. It follows the plight of him and his family following Borkman’s imprisonment for a banking scandal. In the first scene all we hear of Borkman (Ian McDiarmid) are his footsteps upstairs while his wife Gunhild, (the ever-excellent Deborah Findlay) is reluctantly reunited with her estranged twin sister Ella (tedious superlative repetition: the ever-excellent Penelope Wilton), a scene with oodles of animosity to relish.
Ella, who was once Borkman’s lover, has been looking after the Borkmans’ son Erhart (Rafe Spall) post-scandal. Both women want the Erhart for themselves.
The first scene is a masterclass of atmosphere and stillness (note to Phil: you’re doing it again. Are you trying to get onto the posters? Andrew) between the two sisters, and when this all comes to a post-interval head it teeters deliciously between melodrama and farce in a manner which put Andrew in mind of the films of Douglas Sirk.
Claustrophobic and tense, the play proves surprisingly gripping. Coming in (with interval) at a mere 2 hours 15 minutes (thank you DE) JGB rattles along with sparkling dialogue and, unusually for us, never outstays its welcome.
The music is terrific, the staging and design (Peter McKintosh) creates the right feeling of airless gloom and even manages the most impressive set change we’ve ever seen at the Donmar. Snow falls throughout, it’s a veritable winter wonderland beyond the muted interior. But haven’t we seen those trees in a Chekhov sometime? Is there a Scandanavian set warehouse somewhere that you can pick this stuff up from? Probably.
If it all sounds as if we’ve gone completely soft in the head, Andrew, never off duty, cackled at a line referring to the sleigh of Erhart’s “friend” Mrs Wilton (Lolita Chakrabarti – fabulous cloak and cracking bust): “It’s Mrs Wilton’s… I know the bells” as he imagined it playing the tune of La Cucaracha.
And it may be of note to the few people Andrew insists on referring to as “friends” that he seemed to be nodding gently to himself during the dialogue about deception being the essence of friendship.
As professional whingers was there nothing to sink our teeth into? Yes of course, the Whingers are never off the case. From our seats at the side it was hard to judge Ian McDiarmid’s pre-interval scenes as all we saw was the back of his head (as the great producer Max Bialystock once triumphantly said: “You’ve heard of theatre in the round? You’re talking to the man who invented theatre in the square – Nobody got a good seat!”).
But if you’re a fan of Wilton, and can’t afford the best seats, then stage-right would give the best view. Post-interval McDiarmid proved he was more than up to the task and Andrew saw his performance as an opportunity to warm up for a King Lear which can only be a matter of time.
So, Mr Eldridge, please go ahead and write another play. If you don’t want to do another melodrama, we think that a jolly good whodunnit is well overdue.