You may have heard how hot it is here in Toronto. Right now it’s 95 degrees Fahrenheit on my balcony (old F. thermometer out there). Couple of hours ago it was 110, so it’s getting cooler (?). You also may have heard of, or even seen when it’s tried, frying an egg on the sidewalk when it’s hot. I’ve never seen it but I believe it. So can you believe that my brain is getting fried? I am capable of short spurts of productivity and then I sink into apathetic torpor, and that’s with AC. Yesterday was a wipe-out, although I did do some homework about Ibsen. Today I’m not sure. We’ll see how far I get.
Remember I said I had a memory of Ibsen’s play, John Gabriel Borkman, as a possibility for a crime fiction vehicle - maybe not a play but a film, certainly a novel? I didn’t see it so readily when I saw it again this week in Stratford. First, let me say that it was an excellent production; we were privileged to enjoy the work of master craftspeople playing the roles. I had some trouble with the set design: did there have to be so many newspapers piled up, and could they not have been cleared later? I didn’t mind piling up some furniture to make peaks to climb on in the last act. Such arrangements allow swifter transitions from scene to scene. Audiences must have been more patient in Ibsen’s day; they didn’t have a movie mind-set then. And while I appreciated the use of oil lamps because they worked very well for close-ups on the people carrying them, I think they were carried too long and they became (to me) cumbersome and distracting.
I must say something about Carey Perloff, the director responsible for this mesmerising production. Originally from the east, she has been since 1993 the a.d. of ACT (Actors’ Conservatory Theatre) in San Francisco and is very open to Canadian plays and performers. In her program essay she writes that she has for many years longed to direct Borkman with the master actors at Stratford and I’m grateful that she got her wish. I do not, however, entirely agree with her assessment of the play, or rather, of the protagonist.
I recognised my own assessment when I saw The Master Builder (with Ralph Fiennes) in London in January. I have a different bead on Ibsen’s men, still feeling my way to articulating it. This began with my own adaptations of An Enemy of the People (two, slightly different for two different Canadian theatres: Manitoba Theatre Centre, now Royal, and the St Lawrence Centre, now The Canadian Stage). Ibsen’s men are courageous, spoiled, indulged (by women) and desperate. Carey Perloff recognises the “moral ambiguity” that Borkman struggles with. She thinks he is "neither hero nor villain, a restless soul with a massive vision…unable to comprehend…that ambition without love is doomed to failure.” Yes, well, I think he is benighted. I checked the definition of benighted to be sure I was saying what I meant: “in a state of pitiful or contemptible intellectual or moral ignorance”. Yes, that’s what I meant. I called the master builder benighted. Dr. Stockman certainly is. And the late Captain Alving (Ghosts) left his son with more than syphilis as his legacy.
My battery is warning me that it’s going to sleep soon. Me too. I will leave my take on Ibsen’s attitude to women till tomorrow.