A failed attempt to sum up John Gabriel Borkman (3)

John Gabriel Borkman is the next-to-last play that Norwegian heavyweight playwright Henrik Ibsen wrote. Completed in 1896, it was first performed as a reading in London in the winter of that year. Here’s what a British performance of the play looks like these days – you get the picture; serious, fraught family drama that not only captures the tumult of the fin de siècle, but also expresses something universal about human nature, the power of love, and the love of power. Probably anyway.

Now, before we proceed, let’s just say Vegard Vinge, Ida Müller, and Tront Reinholdtsen’s production, chosen by this year’s jury as Theatertreffen-worthy, has more in common with the Rocky Horror Picture Show than with the work of the esteemed Ms Shaw and Mr Rickman I linked to above.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard so much about a production and yet still had so little idea of what to expect. I read the live tweets and I’d seen the photos of the harrassed audience members, but I soon realized that until I took the plunge myself the whole 12-hour-long #Borkman experience was going to remain a mystery to me. So when it was my turn to go, I was all anticipation and determination. Fear not blog readers, I thought, I will EXPLAIN, once and for all.

Let’s say from the off that I was not well-equipped to deal with the task at hand. Firstly, I only took a 1L bottle of water and some Mentos as provisions. But more importantly, I have never in my life been faced by such an onslaught of sounds, images, ideas, fake blood, and penises – let alone have to get home afterwards and write something coherent about it. My mood swings were at an all-time high, at least one hitting every half hour.

Therefore, I propose the following: I will organize my thoughts thematically according to these moods – Discomfort, Boredom, Fascination, Confusion, Amusement, Exhaustion, and Awe (capitalized for added Germanness).

Discomfort

There’s a great word in German to describe how I felt when I passed the ticket check: “unwohl.” The best way I can think to translate it is “ill at ease”. Dark passages led past rooms where actors were standing stock still in garish costumes, staring at the audience as we decided whether to go left or right. It felt very possible that I could take a wrong turn and find myself standing in one such room, lost in the play itself.

Director Vegard Vinge made sure this feeling stayed with me throughout the performance. He lurks at the lighting and sound desk behind the audience (directly behind me, as I’d chosen the back row mistakenly thinking it might be safer to be further from the stage) and you never knew when he was going to come barging out into the galleries along the side of the auditorium and start tearing down the set, or walk right onto the stage and create a drama all of his own – usually involving urinating, mostly onto himself or other people. The woman sitting next to me was actually injured when Vinge spontaneously decided to remove the bench in front of us.

This gross-out theatre is nothing new, and it was my least favourite part of the performance – an extended live video of Borkman being anally penetrated by a huge dildo labeled “The Law” deserving special mention in this context. But on the other hand, watching the stage when nothing was happening, no Vinge in sight, was the best kind of feeling unwohl. I felt like I was staring at one of those creepy ‘spot the ghost’ photos, preparing to get a shock at any moment.

Boredom

I can’t imagine surviving Monday’s performance, in which Vinge apparently did nothing but count for 6 hours before the curtain even went up. Although we were spared much counting last night (I think he got to 300 at some point, but that’s small fry), the 45 minutes of reading from the dictionary had me nodding off before the play had even really begun. One audience member got her iPad out.

iPad glow, Photo: Miriam Sherwood

Later in the night, the moments of boredom came from the sheer excessive repetition, stretching a slapstick gag like ‘woman walks into a wall’ beyond its limits (‘woman walks into a wall’ x 20). It reminded me of those extended dream sequences in Family Guy, where even if you were laughing at the beginning you sure won’t be after another few self-indulgent minutes of it. There was also a fair bit of waiting around for scene changes, but they were worth it (see “Awe”).

Fascination

I had intended to leave every two and a half hours or so to write a paragraph of this post, but to my surprise I found it really hard to tear myself away until around 8pm when my stomach rumbles threatened to compete with Vinge’s deranged yelling.

I put my fascination down to the style of acting in the production. All the actors – and technicians – wore full masks throughout the performance (a feat in itself, those things must be boiling) and together with their bright, cartoony costumes they made the performers look like Chucky’s less friendly relatives.

With masks covering their mouths, speech had to come from some external source. All the voices were completely distorted, both in pitch and tempo, and I couldn’t work out if they were pre-recorded or if someone else was speaking the lines live – sometimes I thought I spotted Vinge himself muttering into a microphone whilst an actor was ‘speaking.’ Unfortunately the group refuses to give interviews or attend a post-show discussion at the Theatertreffen, so I guess we’ll never know. Whatever the trick, it had the strange effect of being the mechanical trigger for the actors’ movements. Because the sound was coming from somewhere else, they had to wait for it before they could do anything.

Each character has its own signature sound, not just in terms of the voice, but also their footsteps. If they weren’t speaking, regardless of whether or not another character was speaking to them, or if their footstep sound wasn’t playing, the actors remained completely still. When they did move, it was with a robotic preciseness that suited the mechanical sound-triggers-movement system exactly. The actor playing Erhart, Borkman’s son, is a great example. He never made any movement outside the range of a doll or computer game character, even if that meant letting his trousers fall down as he walked. And the walk is crucial – he managed to set down his feet without ever straightening his legs or stepping on his heels, so that he almost looked like a weightless marionette being controlled by strings from above.

Confusion

It’s probably clear at this point that lot of things that have nothing to do with Ibsen’s play take place during the performance. An army invasion, for example. Borkman has two stories going on simultaneously; the tragedy of power-hungry Borkman and the comedy of power-hungry Vinge. But the line is deliberately blurred between the two, with Vinge referring to himself as Borkman, and to Borkman as “Father.”

And then there’s that fact that you can leave for 20 minutes, and when you come back there’s a naked woman on stage who stays there for the rest of the show, at one point even on a crucifix, and you have no idea who she is. And bits of the set that were on the stage before are now mysteriously on the seat you had been sitting on.

Amusement

Unexpectedly, that is, if you read the play in preparation like I did, a lot of things in this version of John Gabriel Borkman are funny. At least in this version. I made a list:

–       A skeleton orchestra

–       References to other famous father/son conflicts, including light sabres

–       Exaggerated sound effects accompanying everything from the heaving of cardboard  rocks to a comb through hair

–       Angela Merkel dangling over parliament

Exhaustion

I know, this one seems obvious, after all it soldiered on unrelentingly from 4pm til 4am. But it wasn’t just that, it was the heat. I was melting. I could see Vinge was melting. I could smell all of us melting.

Dozing in the auditorium, Photo: Miriam Sherwood

Awe

Finally, the unbelievably epic set design. It starts with the rooms you pass on your way in, and continues along the walls of the auditorium with passages and balconies. On stage, a larger-than-life doll’s house, with curtains that can be pushed back to reveal more and more rooms. Over the course of the evening, bits of the house get pushed back, sawn off or otherwise demolished, and you realize you hadn’t even begun to fathom the depth of the stage. Waiting back there is a war zone, a mountain range, and a glittering ocean as a reward for making it to the end of the night. The area beneath the stage transforms from glacier to fiery underworld. All this in the painstaking detail of a chaotic cartoon nightmare.

Impossible to sum up as the production is, I think “Awe” is probably the right note to sign off on.

  1. Thanks for summing up your experience with Borkmann + Vinge – at least now I think to have a vague idea of what to expect on sunday! …and to bring along more beverages!

  2. The woman was reading the original play – we just got another layer to this crazy onion-type (to many layers to count and for sure in the end it will make you cry – out of joy, fear, detest, boredom or heat etc.) world of Vinge.

    But even almost after a week of seeing the performance, I have to admit, it was quite cozy inside this burning-bleeding-breaking onion. With 12 hours the room got familiar, I got used to people sitting next to me, it felt as if they had to be there. And of course the lovely lady-man on the left balcony who just stared at us for almost 12 straight hours.
    Something changed in our heads. Vinge and the crew managed to achieve something rare – to push the button. Don´t ask me which one.

    • Hi Mikhel, thanks for your great comment – i definitely feel like something changed in my head too!

      so the woman with the iPad was reading the play?? That’s brilliant!

      • Vinge ‚pushed a button‘ – that’s excellently put! Before going I thought I would be prepared: bringing beverages + food, wearing comfy + old clothes, sitting next to the emergency exit. But it was all different: I really didn’t wanna leave this weird parallel-universe Vinge + co. dragged us into! I felt like everything you take for granted vanished or diminished – all rules just fell apart: moral, decent behaviour, even gravity and time became obsolet. And the strangest thing was how long-lasting this effect still is: Suddenly ‚reality‘ feels very unreal and weird. And I still don’t know what to make of it, but I feel it makes something with me.

  3. Thanks for your attempt at a summary. I think you identified the actor tearing apart the set (wearing the shirt with Wagner on the front) as Vigne, and also described the actor who counted to 300 in the video that night as Vigne, too. I was at the May 5 performance and which actors played which roles was not noted in the program. Since they were wearing masks how did you know they were Vigne?

    (Photo of Vigne (?) in foreground: http://www.berlinerfestspiele.de/de/aktuell/festivals/theatertreffen/programm_tt/programm_tt_gesamt/detail_37232.php)

    • Hi Wayne, thanks for your comment! I think the show varies pretty wildly at each performance – I saw the show a week after you, on the 11th, and the counting didn’t happen over the video. I thought I saw Vinge (the one in the Wagner t-shirt) counting over his microphone, although as you say it’s pretty hard to know who’s doing what behind all the masks! Another thing I’ve had confirmed since I wrote this post is that, along with the sound effects, the voices of all the characters are indeed performed by separate actors sitting in the technical box behind the audience, and not by the ones on stage. So maybe the counting you saw on the video was also voiced by Vinge – we may never know for sure! Did you like the production?

      • Yes. I found these scenes especially arresting and memorable from that evening which may or may not have been including for other performances:

        1. Montage establishing Erhart in his private world in his bedroom either establishing him as a typical teenager and/or perhaps suggesting his need for escape and the few but simple avenues he has for this such as sports, the dribbling of a 2-D cardboard orange basketball that bobs up and down moved by a black stick attached from below the stage; comic books; a video game made simply of cardboard and sticks that moved the pong paddles……

        2. Erhart breaking out of his room-sized womb, struggling with this endless python-like, rope- or jungle vine-ike length of ubilical cord that dangled blood-red from all over the front area of the room’s ceiling like massively oversized lengths of sausage at a butcher’s shop.

        3. Scene where Borkman’s werewolf avatar is trying to break out of his prison, ripping apart his room. It reaches this crescendo where he/it finally shatters the (cardboard?) bars of his prison accompanied by and explosion of clattering sound effects that made it sound more real (hyper real?) than were they real metal bars.

        4. War Zone scene with two full-size 2-D helicopters rising and falling in the background that ended with Borkman helming what used to be his prison of a room but has now unmoored itself somehow and cast off from its original position and morphed into the deck of a ship as a kind of Flying Dutchman with music from that opera playing and whole cast generating hurricane gusts of wind by waving items of their clothes that they had taken off or even Vinge vigourously yanking and thrusting the stage curtains.

        5. Curtain comes up with most of the stage in darkness on one of the later acts and you can hear the sound of a huge boulder being rolled and the naked Borkman appears underground rolling this boulder (probably made of Styrofoam but is also given the hyper-real effect by the sound crew). What you are seeing is a cutaway of his hell/purgatory aglow with heat above which you gradually realize a figure of his werewolf avatar on the layer immediately above him standing in this pit and digging with a shovel endlessly it seems with the light and steam rising from below.

        I also wanted to ask you a couple of other questions about the production you saw. In the TT12 program book there’s a photo from Borkman. To the left of Erhart, I was wondering whether you took that to be Mrs. Borkman and if so, if you took the other woman character (I think her signature phrase was something like „Mein Liebe.“) for Ella, Erhart’s aunt. Also, about the tin man or golem like avatar(s) to the right, how were these used (if at all) in the production you saw?

        • how great to be reminded of all those great moments!! i loved all of those scenes too – although I think i might have missed no. 2.

          i definitely took the other woman to be Ella, yeah. what I wasn’t sure about was a third woman who appeared about halfway through, who was naked and never spoke, and was hanging on an almost-crucifix on the mountain at the end, whilst the other two women were still in the house. maybe she was also an avatar of one of them, as you described the werewolf-character?

          no tin men when i saw it! just lots of skeletons.

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