John Gabriel Borkman by Henrik Ibsen, in a version by David Eldridge

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John Gabriel Borkman by Henrik Ibsen, in a version by David Eldridge. Dir. Helen Perry. Perf. David Threlfall, Susannah Harker, Gillian Bevan. BBC Radio 4, 8-15 March 2015. BBCiPlayer to 20 April 2015

Written in 1895, John Gabriel Borkman is a passionate piece analyzing the dangers of ambition. Borkman (David Threlfall) is a former bank manager who has been jailed for fraud. Now released from prison, he continues to protest his innocence. He never goes out, but is occasionally visited by his close friend Vilhelm Foldal (Philip Jackson) who encourages Borkman in the belief that his former staff at the bank will come back and ask Borkman to reassume his position.

We also learn a lot about Borkman's private life. As a young man he deserted his great love Ella (Susannah Harker) and married her twin sister Gunhild (Gillian Bevan) instead, as a means of assuming the bank manager's position. While in prison, Ella looked after his son Erhart (Luke Newberry), but now Erhart has branched out on his own. Meanwhile Ella asks the Borkman family whether Erhart can take her name; now suffering from a mortal disease, it represents her dying wish. Borkman agrees, but Gunhild refuses: the two sisters end up having a blazing row as a result. The matter is resolved by Erhart's decision not to live with either of them. With little or nothing left to live for, Borkman goes out into the winter night with Ella and dies.

As portrayed by Threlfall, Borkman came across as someone pathologically unwilling (or unable) to take responsibility for what he had done. In terms of character, he was reminiscent of the politician who, having been caught breaking the rules, tries to suggest that he had "made a mistake" as if he were somehow not responsible for his actions In his exchanges with Foldal, Borkman was perpetually trying to re-establish his reputation as a bank manager and a would-be writer, even though he had little aptitude for the latter.

Yet Borkman had not only ruined his own life, he had also touched the lives of those closest to him. Both Gunhild and Ella had little left to live for, except to battle over Erhart's name. Their existences had been blighted by Borkman's past actions (his crime, as well as his decision to abandon Ella for Gunhild). His attitude towards life, and ambition, recalled that of Tom and Daisy Buchanan in Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," memorably described thus by Nick Carraway: "They were careless people [...] they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into [...] whatever it was that kept them together and let other people clean up the mess they had made." The only difference in "John Gabriel Borkman" was that no one could clean up the mess Borkman had made: the sisters' lives were ruined.

Stylistically speaking, Helen Perry's production was very intimate, with the actors delivering their lines close to the microphone in hushed tones, almost as if they were wary of saying too much. There was a good reason for them to behave in this way; if their humiliation became public knowledge, their lives would be ruined even more. Sometimes all we could hear (apart from the voices) was the tick-tock of the grandfather clock in the background. Perry drew a clever sonic analogy between the ticking of the clock and the thump-thump of Borkman's footfall, as he walked endlessly up and down the upstairs room. Both of them suggested the inexorable passage of time, impervious to the characters' domestic struggles.

Sound played a major part in reinforcing the themes of this revival. On occasions we heard the clank of metal and the sound of human voices, symbols of the world of work that Borkman had once inhabited. The liveliness of such sounds contrasted with the grandfather clock, emphasizing the contrast between the public and domestic spheres, as well as reminding us of how Borkman and the two sisters were imprisoned in their domestic world. This was one of the outcomes of Borkman's decision to smash up the sisters' lives in the vain pursuit of ambition.

In the end Borkman's decision to end his life in the bleakness of a cold winter's night seemed the only course to pursue. Yet still that could be seen as a careless action, as Borkman paid little or no heed to the sisters' continual suffering. We did not feel sorry for him; rather we understood how little he had learned from his experiences. Self-interested to the last, he had checked out of life with little concern for the consequences.