Ibsen's 'John Gabriel Borkman' comes to Tel Aviv

For spell-binding moments, the theater was lifted from the humid coast and placed in Jotunheim, where the ice giants live.

 DANIELLE SHAPIRA in 'John Gabriel Borkman'. (photo credit: NICOLE DE CASTRO)
DANIELLE SHAPIRA in 'John Gabriel Borkman'.
(photo credit: NICOLE DE CASTRO)

Yossi Yzraely brings Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) back to Tel Aviv this summer. Yzraely, who translated Peer Gynt from Norwegian half a century ago, directed the 1987 Gad Kaynar translation of John Gabriel Borkman in a fresh production.

Costume designer Liron Peniel imagined the characters in gleaming raw cotton fabric costumes and Danielle Shapira became the spirit of Nordic winter. For spell-binding moments, the theater was lifted from the humid coast and placed in Jotunheim, where the ice giants live.

Borkman (Shalom Shmuelov), donning a noose-like cravat tie, is a tragic mythical giant. A fraudulent banker, he walked away from his true love Ella Rentheim (Dalia Shimko) because a man he sought for patronage desired her. He wed her sister, Gunhild (Hadar Galron), and sired a son, Erhart (Daniel Hale). While climbing the social ladder, he strove to reach the top. He never made it.

His former patron informed the authorities of his ill-doing. Borkman was tossed into prison and shamed; he spent years pacing his rooms. He has one last friend, Vilhelm Foldal (Rafi Kalmar) and the last spark of what Ibsen called the life lie (livsgloede) – to make it big. A once true love, an estranged bitter wife and a reluctant son – break into his tomb-like existence. Can he save them?

Ibsen is rarely met directly. “At 38 years of age,” wrote Upton Sinclair, “[Ibsen] sewed his own buttons, and renewed the art of theater and the moral ideas of thinking humanity.” In Peer Gynt, the protagonist earns money as a slave trader in Egypt before losing his mind. In Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, we confront our own inability to face the truth, hence the need of the comforting life-lie self-delusion was introduced. In John Gabriel Borkman, the main theme is human labor. It “releases metal from the veins of the earth.” The metal, said Borkman, “sings with joy because it wants to serve mankind.” Due to his failings, the metal remained in darkness.

Borkman did all these foul deeds – murdered love, stole the meager savings of his friend – for an idealized form of industrial progress. The costumes Peniel shaped for this production hint to where we stand in time. Raw cotton represents the potential of clothes, and can be dyed or cut as one likes.

Norway, itself, did not enjoy self-rule when Ibsen was a working playwright. His son, then-Norwegian Prime Minister Sigurd Ibsen, led Norway on that path away from Sweden in 1905.

The music

HUMANITY STILL seeks fortune below the earth, as heard in “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” orchestral music composed by Edvard Grieg. Think of billionaire Dan Gertler, for example, who controls diamonds and copper mines, cobalt and gold from his Bnei Brak home. Yet Gertler, I suspect, is not motivated by a need to dig “tunnels to infinity” like Borkman.

The sort of European optimism Borkman celebrated, and on which Ibsen shined a light, was faltering when Sinclair penned The Jungle. In our times, Chinese forced labor makes mobile phones and child labor in the Congo sends it cobalt.

Shmuelov is a superb actor, his voice the exact mixture of charisma and grit required to convince us that a miner’s son could be so ambitious. He gifted the audience with the psychological portrait about the 19th century-type that we knew but had only heard of.

Our present-day Borkmans fly to space after making virtual billions (Jeff Bezos), mysteriously die in police custody (Jeffrey Epstein), or backpedal from buying Twitter (Elon Musk). If metal hands grip their hearts, they tweet their remorse from well-heated rooms. They do not bear their chest to the elements.

Shmuelov, and his viewers, were gifted with a fantastic group of actors on stage. “Oh, happiness, happiness, happiness,” Galron weeps after her son leaves on a sled, “how long does this happiness last?” Kalmar, an actor on stage depicting a playwright who will never become one, is everything Borkman murdered in himself. “My daughter is on that fancy sled!” Kalmar exclaimed in joy. “Does it not bother you she drove over her own father?” A stunned Borkman asked. “I do not care,” Kalmar responded, “she will see the world!”

Give a round of applause for the two Daniels, Shapira and Hale. Last summer, Shapira played the mute and abused princess in Gombrowicz’s Ivona, Princess of Burgundia. Hale depicted a sexually ambiguous aid to the prince (Itamar Brafman). This summer, Hale excels in the role of a naïve youth seeking his destiny and Shapira alternates between a servant girl (Malene) and the land of Norway personified.

“People, you stand at the cross-road!” Ibsen wrote in Brand. “Why have you come to church? Only to see a theater show, to listen to the organ and the bells... instead come, with the fresh faces of children, to the great church of life.”

John Gabriel Borkman will be shown at Tmu-na Theater (8 Shonzino St. Tel Aviv) on Tuesday (August 16) at 8 p.m. and Wednesday (August 17) at 8 p.m. Hebrew only. NIS 90 per ticket. Call (03) 561-1211 to book.