Bridge Theatre, London – until 27 November 2022
Heavy footfalls pace overhead, enervating, raising anxiety. Anna Fleischle’s galleried grey set is half Scandi-minimo-chic, half penitentiary. Downstairs two sisters meet after 13 years’ estrangement, including five while Gunnhild’s husband served a sentence for fraud. Aunt Ella raised their child Erhart to keep him far from the scandal. Now the sisters are beginning to fight for the amiable young man, who wisely shows no wish to be owned by either.
Clare Higgins’ Gunnhild is a stumping discontented blonde who expects Erhard to bring her back to fortune and status, and resents her disgraced husband John Gabriel who is living upstairs like a hermit. Lia Williams is Ella: skinny, ailing, drowned in a brown frock and extinguished by a rain-hat. Yet this defeated Auntie-Vera figure will, within one tense winter evening and a 100-minute show, explode into the most dramatic passion we’ve seen on stage all year. Williams will astonish us.
On a balcony above this unhappy family scene Freda, a modest young friend of the house, plays Liszt’s dark thundering Totentanz – dance of the dead. (Daisy Ou is a professional concert pianist). Its gloom causes young Erhart to nip off to a party with a foxy older woman (Ony Uhiara) for bright lights and jollier music. John Gabriel loves the Liszt though, pacing or rocking on his makeshift bed, remembering the heady clang of hammers on iron ore in the mines of his youth, metal wrenched from rock to build an industrial empire.
His only remaining friend is Wilhelm, Frida’s Dad, who dreams of being a novelist and is almost as depressed as JG himself. The two old men grumble together: Michael Simkins as Wilhelm gloriously funny in deadpan Eeyore style, JG ranting about how “exceptional people” like him are different, all the clients he cheated would have been repaid if things had gone well, and how the world will exonerate him any minute and beg him to return and lead them. (Eerie echoes of Boris must be hastily dismissed).
He then discards Wilhelm, supposedly for good, for being a lousy writer. “We deceived each other and ourselves” says JG coldly. But, cries Wilhelm, “Isn’t that the essence of friendship?” Never a false note. Lucinda Coxon’s reworking of the literal-translation makes it all ours. Every actor hits every note, sharp as JG’s remembered hammers.
In great plays a scene, character or domestic confrontation can be both appalling and comic: pity, terror and barks of shocked laughter are not incompatible even within a sentence. Ibsen knew that, but in the Norwegian rebel’s grim late works it takes a relaxed director and some weapons-grade actors to keep that balance. Cue Nicholas Hytner, Simon Russell Beale and Lia Williams: rescuing, for me and for good, a play I hated last time I saw it.
Then, the antihero drew no sympathy – a self-aggrandizing deluded fraud. Whereas Russell Beale, under a big scruffy beige cardigan, draws almost too much. He drags you into the magic in his vision of industrial growth: iron and steel and machinery and light and power across the empire he gambled too high for. When he says he’s a “great wounded eagle” or a young Napoleon cut down at the point of victory, you momentarily believe the old rogue. Until you shudder at some sudden cruel remark, or a reminder that he ruined everyone he knew except Ella. The man’s collapsed grandeur, his tense staccato complaint broken by occasional devastating one-liners, all hold you riveted. Russell Beale makes you see why Ella , his first and only human love, adored him before he settled for the more pliable Gunnhild. The backwash of that love continues: she wants her darling nephew Erhart to replace him and take her family name. But when JG returns for the first time in eight years to his wife’s sitting-room, a ludicrous and again shockingly funny three-way battle is fought over the young man’s fealty. It concludes, as all such battles should, with Erhart (debutant Sebastian de Souza) wisely sloping off to warmer lands with his foxy cougar Fanny and the musician Frida.
And this is Norway and winter and Ibsen, so out into the storm goes our seductive, terrible, deluded miner of dreams and wrecker of women. But with that fine dramatic balance, before the inevitable tragedy we see Simkins’ adorable Wilhelm again in his bike helmet, happy as Larry about his gifted daughter Frida having found a mentor for her presumed musical studies. It is as if Ibsen wanted, just briefly, to reassure us that flawed visionary heroes aren’t the only kind of man available.
Box office bridgetheatre.co.uk. To 27 Nov