Fraudsters’ final victims are themselves and their families

“Like Ibsen’s Borkman, brooding upstairs, Madoff seemed to think that his criminal career was the result, not of greed, or avarice, but a cruel hand of fate.” 

Dan McCrum in the programme of John Gabriel Borkman.

Simon Russell Beale as John Gabriel Borkman (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

No one ever said Ibsen was fun.  People who have never seen or read an Ibsen play find the word “gloomy” springing to their minds when they hear his name.  And yet the audience laughed several times on the night I saw John Gabriel Borkman, one of his last plays, at the Bridge Theatre.

Here’s another paradox. Ibsen, a Norwegian, has been dead for more than 100 years, yet John Gabriel Borkman feels utterly up-to-date.   It’s about the sort of person that commits complex financial fraud, the way they lie to the world and to themselves, and destroy their families.  The closer you are to a Bernie Madoff, a Charles Ponzi, a Ken Lay, an Elizabeth Holmes, the more you are damaged by them.  Ibsen understood that.  Yet he was dead before the world had heard of any of these great swindlers.

Ibsen’s Borkman, once a famous businessman, went to prison for fraud, and was released eight years before the play opens.  He has stayed upstairs all that time, in the house he shares with his estranged wife – the house that is owned by his wife’s sister, which is how it was kept out of the hands of Borkman’s creditors.

Borkman, like Madoff, Ponzi, Lay and Holmes, still maintains he did nothing wrong.  He paces his room and plans a comeback which anyone in touch with reality can see is a chimera.  

Simon Russell Beale is just right as Borkman – squat, untidy, self-absorbed, self-righteous, his failure to understand that other people are real and have feelings is made believable because it is so casual.   One of the loudest laughs of the evening follows his casual assertion to a woman who loved him that “women are interchangeable.”

Simon Russell Beale as John Gabriel Borkman amd Lia Williams as Ella Renthelm (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Russell Beale gets strong support from the other two main characters, the two women in Borkman’s life, his wife Gunhild (Clare Higgins) and her sister Ella (Lia Williams).  I wondered vaguely why the terminal illness from which Ella suffers should require her to walk with a limp.  Apparently Williams has broken her Achilles tendon, and is wearing a surgical boot, and my wonderment is a tribute to the skill with which she adapts this problem to the character.   

There are a couple of delightful cameo performances from the two young people in the play, Borkman’s son Erhard who wants to free himself from the stifling world the old people have created (Sebastian De Souza) and Erhard’s sophisticated girlfriend Fanny (Ony Uhiara).  Michael Simkins offers a convincing portrayal of Borkman’s only friend now, the sad unsuccessful novelist Vilhelm.

The simple, stark grey set designed by Anna Fleischle includes a back room with a piano on which Daisy Ou plays fractured, frightening music between scenes, and from which she emerges briefly to play Frida, an occasional companion for Borkman. 

All of which helps to ensure that, at 105 minutes straight through (there is no interval), the play does not drag at all. Though there is little action, and by conventional playwriting rules far too much exposition, it’s brilliantly written and acted, and makes for an exciting night in the theatre.

Production Notes

John Gabriel Borkman

In a new version by Lucinda Coxon

from the play by Henrik Ibsen

from a literal translation by Charlotte Barslund

Directed by Nicholas Hytner



Clare Higgins

Lia Williams

Simon Russell Beale

Michael Simkins

Nick Barclay

Ony Uhiara

Sebastian de Souza

Daisy Ou


Director: Nicholas Hytner

Set Designer: Anna Fleischle

Costume Designer: Liam Bunster

Lighting Designer: James Farncombe

Sound Designer: Gareth Fry

Music: Camille Saint-Saëns Piano arrangement by Franz Liszt


Running Time: One hour 45 minutes without an interval

Booking to 26th November 2021


The Bridge Theatre

3 Potters Fields Park

London, SE1 2SG

Phone: 0333 320 0051

Website: The Bridge Theatre

Rail/Tube: London Bridge

Reviewed by Francis Beckett

at the Bridge Theatre

on 30th September 2022