Queensland Theatre Company: John Gabriel Borkman (1)
John Gabriel Borkman by Henrik Ibsen. English version by May-Brit Akerholt. Directed by Michael Gow. Set and costume design by Jonathon Oxlade. Lighting design by Ben Hughes. Sound design and composition by Andy Arthurs, assisted by Yanto Browning. Queensland Theatre Company. At the Bille Brown Studio, South Brisbane, until April 21.
Robert Coleby as “The Banker” before the fall
The story of Ibsen in English is difficult to disentangle from the story of his first (and greatest) champions in the UK: poet and academic (and, lest we forget, rabid fundamentalist Christian) Edmund Gosse and critic, translator and playwright William Archer. I think it’s significant that Gosse was a poet (of sorts) and that Archer was a playwright.
Bear in mind, too, that the more successful recent adaptations and translations of Ibsen include those by Arthur Miller, John Osborne, Christopher Fry, Ann Jellicoe, Geoffrey Hill and Christopher Hampton. Are we starting to see a pattern here?!
Archer was born in Scotland in 1856, 28 years after Ibsen. Ibsen, then, was still writing straight historical drama a la Hebbel and Schiller. His verse dramas Love’s Comedy, Brand and Peer Gynt were still some years off.
Archer first encountered Ibsen’s work as a boy living in Norway. His translation of Pillars of Society was the first Ibsen play performed in England... a single matinee performance in 1880. It was another nine years before A Doll’s House was performed. It was a great success. A performance of Ghosts and a commercial season of Hedda Gabler followed in the next two years. In the meantime, Archer and Gosse had translated and published various Ibsen scripts.
Archer is also remembered as the man who read Ibsen to a young George Bernard Shaw. (Shaw’s long lecture on Ibsen was later published as The Quintessence of Ibsenism.)
Now, I don’t want to be a bitch about this, but... hell... if Ibsen’s first English translator had been May-Brit Akerholt, Ibsen’s fate might have been oblivion. Now, I’m in no position to question Akerholt’s rendering of the text word-for-word -- she was born and educated in Norway after all -- but the script she has turned out here is haze of words, an unnavigable white-out, and the actors sink to their groins in snow drifts every ploddy step of the way.
I can’t let Akerholt off the hook here by guessing that it might be the play itself or Ibsen’s late plays in general or that I might not have ever seen or heard Ibsen done properly before -- though it is many many years since I read John Gabriel Borkman (along with every other Ibsen play) -- cos this featurelessness (shall we say) is present in all of the translations of Ibsen plays I’ve seen from Akerholt including her Hedda for the Sydney Theatre Company in mid 1980s, a woeful Peer Gynt for Anthill in 1990 and now John Gabriel Borkman for the Queensland Theatre Company. A fairly representative spread, I would have thought, of Ibsen’s oeuvre... from early verse drama through great mid-career play to one of the very last plays. I’ve got a feeling I’ve also seen one of Akerholt’s translations of one of Ibsen’s so-called “issue plays”. Maybe Ghosts.
So, either the other translators have got it wrong, or Akerholt has been dazzled by the leaves and not much noticed the branches. This is all the more baffling if one considers that Akerholt has lectured in drama at NIDA and was a dramaturg at the STC for several years, not to mention her on-going contributions to the playwrights conference.
One should never walk away from Ibsen and wonder what all the fuss was about.
That said, this is an above average piece of theatre... but more about that after I have an ultrasound!
You can download William Archer’s translation of John Gabriel Borkman (in plain text form) from Project Gutenberg. It’s free, it’s legal. Click here.