John Gabriel Borkman

Ibsen’s penultimate play, John Gabriel Borkman, was performed at Upstairs at the Gatehouse by Handplay Productions, directed by Harry Meacher. This 1896 play is the story of a man whose pursuit of wealth and power leads to tragedy for himself and those around him.

The play begins with Borkman, having served a prison sentence for fraud, living upstairs in the family home, leaving only rarely and spending his time walking backwards and forwards in his room. His wife Gunhild is determined that their son Erhart shall redeem the family name, but he has other ideas. Meanwhile, Gunhild’s sister and Borkman’s former lover, Ella, arrives for a visit with her own agenda.

There are some good performances, particularly from Harry Meacher as Borkman and Judi Bowker as Ella. Overall this was a decent production of a powerful play.

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Olaf

Olaf, by Ottisdottir Productions, is the first production of Ibsen’s 1856 play Olaf Liljekrans in the UK since 1911. Adapted by Mark Ewbank and performed in the intimate Barons Court Theatre, it’s an enjoyable fable that reveals the younger Ibsen exploring themes that would come to fruition in his later work.

Arne Of Guldvik (Che Watson) has brought his daughter Ingeborg to marry Olaf, son of Lady Kirsten (Rebekka Magnúsdóttir), in order to end a feud between the two rival landowners. However, the groom is nowhere to be found. Rumoured to have been ‘bewitched in the mountains’, it soon becomes apparent that he has fallen in love with another woman, Alfhild. Will he stay true to her, or will he be persuaded to renounce his love in favour of a marriage of convenience?

In its language and plot, the play is somewhat reminiscent of Shakespeare, with a light, comedic tone throughout and some beautiful speeches. The company have managed to do a lot with very little: barely any set and a handful of props are all that are needed. The performances are strong, particularly from Teddy Robson as Olaf. Sarah Madden also convinces as the flighty Ingeborg, while Grace Monroe draws our sympathy as Alfhild.

This enjoyable play isn’t Ibsen’s greatest, but it’s a must-see for any fans of his work, and is a lovely way to spend an afternoon or evening.

Peer Gynt

Peer Gynt is an Ibsen play I’d never seen before, so I booked to see a production at the Questors Theatre in Ealing. One of the playwright’s more fantastical works, it is based on a Norwegian fairy tale and tells of the life of Peer, who gets caught up in a world of trolls, mystery and magic, and travels through Europe and Africa well beyond his native Norway.

The large cast did a superb job, especially considering it was an amateur production. I was particularly struck by the play’s Shakespearean influences, in both the story and the language, although how much of this was down to Ibsen and how much to the play’s translator, I am unsure.

Throughout the course of the play, Peer seems to be searching for his essential self, determined not to do anything that might obstruct who he really is. In this sense it seems to be grappling with contemporary ideas of philosophy and psychology.
I really enjoyed this production, and the chance to see another Ibsen play.

Hedda Gabler

I try not to see the same play more than once: there’s simply too much to see that I haven’t managed to catch already. However, I also love Ruth Wilson, so when the National announced she would be starring in Ivo van Hove’s production of Hedda Gabler, I sighed and prepared myself for the booking scrum. Was it worth it? In a word – yes.

Ibsen’s play is the story of a young woman who, after a youth of recklessness, feels as though she needs to settle down and marries the dour Tesman, an academic with the promise of giving her the social stability and prestige she desires. However, she soon realises that he might not be able to offer this, and begins to think she made a mistake. Things come to a head when she runs into an old flame.

Jan Versweyveld’s set is suitably white and stark, which fits in with the idea that the couple have moved into a large flat bigger than they can afford without the furniture to fill it. I was sitting in the upper circle slips and I wasn’t keen on the way some of the action took place at the far side of the stage, unnecessarily restricting the view from audience members at that side. The bare set also led to the unfortunate consequence that voices echoed all around it, with the notable exception of Ruth Wilson’s: she was completely audible at all times.

On paper, Hedda isn’t a particularly likeable character, and she does do some pretty awful things during the course of the play. Wilson, though, makes her sympathetic, wandering across the stage like a trapped animal, doing the things she does not out of pure wickedness but out of an overwhelming feeling of desperation. No one else quite matches her, although I liked Rafe Spall as Judge Brack and Chukwudi Iwuji as Lovborg. Having seen the play before I knew what was coming, but as it moved towards its dénouement I couldn’t take my eyes away from the stage.

While far from perfect, the National’s production is worth seeing for Ruth Wilson alone. If you can’t get a ticket, see it at the cinema as part of NT Live.

The League of Youth

The League of Youth is one of Ibsen’s lesser-known plays, but it has been given a new lease of life by theatre company Riot Act at the Theatre N16 in Balham. Originally set in the nineteenth century, it has been updated by writer Ashley Pearson to 21st-century London. Sten Stensgard, newly arrived from the firm’s Dublin branch, turns up at the Christmas party and fires up his colleagues with talk of democratic office politics and a new “League of Youth”, which serve mainly to increase his own power. The result causes chaos in the company, from the lowly office workers to the former and current CEOs.

A talented cast, including Niall Bishop as the cunning Stensgard, bring the piece to life, and it is fast-paced, topical and funny. It is an intelligent updating of a play by one of the greatest dramatists, and definitely worth seeing.

The Master Builder

As an Ibsen completist, I was thrilled to hear that the Old Vic would be showing The Master Builder, Ibsen’s great 1892 work about a successful but flawed architect. I was even more excited to learn that Ralph Fiennes would be starring, and was lucky enough to grab a £10 preview seat. This particular version has been adapted by David Hare, an acclaimed playwright in his own right, and directed by Matthew Warchus.

Halvard Solness (Fiennes) is the “Master Builder” of a small Norwegian town, who has become the pre-eminent local architect despite having no formal qualifications. One day he is visited by Hilda Wangel (Sarah Snook), a young woman who insists the two have met before. She claims that ten years ago, when she was a girl, Solness – who had just completed a significant building project – had offered her romance and “castles in the sky”, which she has now returned to claim. Solness falls under Hilda’s spell and grows closer to her, causing complications in his relationship with his wife, Aline (Linda Emond), with whom he shares a tragic past.

On the surface this sounds like one of those tired “older man becomes infatuated with younger woman” stories, but there is much more to it than that. In many ways Solness is a sympathetic character, with tragedy in his past and a sense of guilt that his success as an architect has come about in part because of the misfortunes of others. Fiennes is superb in the part, often seeming weighed down by the intensity of his emotions. I was less convinced by Snook’s performance as Hilde: she came across as too governess-like, but she did convey the ambiguity of the character: I could never work out whether she was telling the truth or employing flights of fancy in her account of her previous meeting with Holness.

Among the supporting cast, Linda Emond brought a depth of quiet sorrow to Aline Holness, and Martin Hutson was also very good as Holness’ younger, thwarted assistant. Rob Howell’s set is impressively ambitious, and the ending of the play – even though I could see it coming a mile off – is incredibly powerful.

The Master Builder is an extremely odd play, and even now I’m not sure what to make of it – but it’s a powerful production, and worth seeing for Fiennes’ performance in particular.

Little Eyolf

As a lover of Ibsen, I was keen to see Richard Eyre’s new production of Little Eyolf at the Almeida Theatre. Displaying the playwright’s talent for exploring troubled marriages, it tells the story of Alfred and Rita Allmers, a couple whose relationship is in crisis. After spending some time away, Alfred has decided to give up on his idea of writing a book in favour of focusing his attentions on the education of his son, Eyolf. This decision leads to jealousy on the part of his wife, who confesses she wants Alfred all to herself, and admits that she wishes Eyolf had never been born. However, tragedy soon strikes.

I was hugely interested in this play, which started off as a domestic drama and then became something else entirely, as Alfred (Jolyon Coy) and Rita (Lydia Leonard) have to confront their guilt and the difficulties of their mixed feelings towards one another: we learn, for instance, that Eyolf was permanently crippled after falling from a table while the couple were making love. We discover that Alfred only married the wealthy Rita to ensure that his sister Asta (Eve Ponsonby) would be comfortable, and there are hints of incestuous feelings between the siblings.

The set is stark and rather IKEA-like, but I thought it worked well against the beautiful backdrop of the lake. The play also features a dog, brought on by the Rat-Woman (Eileen Walsh) who uses it to hunt rats in the neighbourhood and who attracts the attention of Eyolf – rather like the Pied Piper, I thought.

This is a short production but it is an emotionally affecting one. Definitely recommended.