John Gabriel Borkman - Donmar Warehouse starring Iain McDiarmid
The Tempest - Novello Theatre starring Patrick Stewart
Round One - The Play
Borkman is one of Ibsen's final works. It's pretty bleak stuff. A disgraced banker who has spent time in prison is in self-imposed exile in the upstairs room of his house whilst still dreaming of an incredible empire he will one day build. He doesn't come downstairs until Act 2. Edvard Munch loved this play. That's how cheerful it is.
The Tempest is probably Shakespeare's final play. The story has been told so many times I don't think I need to retread it here. For Shakespeare it's pretty straightforward and easy to follow. There's tragedy, comedy and some music. There are some famous lines here like the one about a brave new world and they cause a ripple of recognition through the audience like when a band starts up the first bars of one of its hits. It's also a lot shorter than some of Shakey's other plays.
Winner of Round One - The Tempest
Round Two - The Venue
I like the Donmar Warehouse. It's small and you get to sit on long benches that are reasonably comfortable. A few years ago Nicole Kidman performed here and at one point she was nude. There was a crazy scramble for tickets. I hadn't visited at the time but now I can see why people were getting so worked up. The place is so small that it would've been like having a naked Nicole in your front room.
The Novello is an old style traditional theatre. It's called the Novello because Ivor had an apartment at the top of the building. It used to be called the Strand and housed a lot of "drop-your-trousers" British farce. Much as I love old theatres they really aren't that comfortable and the sightlines are appalling. The large haired woman in front of me meant I was continually having to bob from side to side to see through her frizz.
Winner of Round Two - Borkman
Round Three - Set Design
There isn't much of a set at the Donmar. A few tables and chairs are moved around a bit. At the back of the stage are windows through which you can see snow falling during the show. This is very effective. Not so effective is the white carpet rolled out for the external scenes at the end. It would've been better to have just left the stage bare. Instead it looked like an info-mercial to show how clean your carpet could get if you had the right kind of shampoo.
The Tempest is an RSC production. A lot of fancy tricks; People disappearing through trapdoors; film projections; Ariel bursting out of a large dead seal; an explosion. The opening scene, the tempest in fact, takes place behind a screen with projections of waves playing across it. So there was always plenty to look at even in the boring bits.
Winner of Round Three - The Tempest
Round Four - Supporting Cast
The two female leads in Borkman were excellent. Penelope Wilton does anguish and rage very well and although you are right up close it doesn't seem too much - even when she shouts so loudly that little bits of spittle fly from her mouth and chase the dust across the beam of the spotlights. Timothy Spall's son is in it but he plays Borkman's son as though he was a Harry Enfield character and is very annoying.
There is an absolutely superb performance by Julian Bleach as the invisible spirit Ariel. Imagine Kenneth Williams doing Nosferatu. The chorus of goddesses look and sound like the Slits and the crude clowning of the drunken butler and the jester are suitably grotesque including a classic wine bottle up the arse moment.
Winner of Round Four - The Tempest
Round Five - The Audience
Both nights were previews. The Donmar wasn't full so it was pretty relaxed. I listened to people in the interval talk about other plays they had recently seen, exhibitions, somebody's teacher getting sacked. The usual cosmopolitan bourgeois babble. No queue for the bar, no queue for the toilet.
The Novello was full of tourists. My seat was kicked throughout and a loud American kept saying "make it so" which he thought was very funny. The girl next to me fell asleep and almost had her head on my shoulder. Somebody a row or two ahead took a photo with a flash when Patrick Stewart entered. Plus the queue at the bar was so long I had to go to a corner shop to get a drink. Overheard conversation included how expensive everything and anything was and how long the queue was to get into the Tower of London that afternoon.
Winner of Round Five - Borkman
Round Six - The Main Men
McDiarmid was a lot shorter than I imagined. But he had presence and the ability to express seething disappointment, rage and desperation with the merest gesture. It was a tremendously controlled performance. And he had a fantastic white beard.
Stewart was doing Shakespeare. I mean he was really DOING Shakespeare. It was big theatre and a big stage and he filled it up. He had some make-up on his head and a nice early scene with a magic cape. But it has to be said that Ariel stole the show so.../p>
Winner of Round Six - Borkman
Seventh and Final Round - The Ending
The Tempest ends with an epilogue from Prospero where he more or less asks the audience to decide his fate. If we applaud then he is free to leave the island, if we don't then he stays there. It's like a reality show. As usual there was a long gap while the audience worked out what it was they were supposed to do. And when the applause finally came Stewart shrugged and smiled. It was an elegant and subtle gesture that epitomised the humanity in his performance.
Borkman dies at the end. Dead on a bench. Then there are 5 minutes or so more to be acted out. So McDiarmid has a death scene and then he lies there. I watched him. He didn't seem to be in a particularly comfortable position but I didn't see him move. Not an eyelid, not a breath, not the merest twitch. And for that he nicks it. Right at the death as it were.
Round 7 and Victory to Borkman!.
Magneto (AKA Sir Ian McKellen) does King Lear in Stratford later this month. A report will be filed.
Kirk Lake is a writer, musician and filmmaker. His published books include Mickey The Mimic (2015) and The Last Night of the Leamington Licker (2018). His films include the feature films Piercing Brightness (2014) and The World We Knew (2020) and a number of award winning shorts.
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