- John Gabriel Borkman
Since 2006, the Ibsen-Saga, created by Vegard Vinge (director, performer) and Ida Müller (director, [End Page 430] scenographer, performer), has sent shockwaves through continental Europe’s experimental theatre scene. The uncompromising artists’ durational performances and radical aesthetics have made them two of the most noteworthy theatre practitioners of the past decade. In 2011, Vinge and Müller took up residency in the Volksbühne’s Prater theatre, where their John Gabriel Borkman, the fourth installment in the Saga, earned the duo an invitation to Germany’s prestigious Theatertreffen. The production is emblematic of the Ibsen-Saga’s provocative vision of the theatre and sustained investigation of Ibsen as the dramatic wellspring of the modern condition. What constitutes Ibsen’s oeuvre for Vinge and Müller, as Raymond Williams previously argued in Modern Tragedy, is the unresolvable state of the contemporary subject, who is impelled by his/her individuality but inevitably crushed by the weight of his/her biological and cultural inheritance. This modern double bind permeated every element of Vinge and Müller’s production, which integrated durational performance, popular-culture narratives, associative digressions, collectively created artisanal designs, and denaturalized performances in an effort to create a meditation on Ibsen’s ethos, rather than a faithful production of the text.
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Averaging eight to thirteen hours in length, John Gabriel Borkman ran without scheduled intermissions or a predetermined end-time. Structured as a series of nearly wordless vignettes with a soundtrack of looped opera and popular music, scenes began and ended suddenly at the open or close of a massive curtain. Much of the plot was replaced with a range of well-known historical and contemporary narratives that emphasized the individual’s struggle with his/her inheritance. Leaping backward and forward in time, Erhart Borkman was followed from his gestation in his mother Gunhild’s womb through his childhood of playing video games and rapping. Erhart’s youthful idealism, innocence, and creativity were threatened by the corrupted adult world embodied in the overbearing Ella and Gunhild, and the unethical business practices of Borkman and the lawyer Hinkle, who haunted the stage as a demon in a business suit. Scenes from the Star Wars trilogy, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and Richard Wagner’s operas were referenced, if not wholly restaged, with Erhart in the roles of Siegfried or Luke Skywalker, for example, highlighting the archetypal and persistent significance of such generational clashes. The scenes’ content, order, and length changed nightly, and the action expanded the original timeframe of the play to include digressive scenes of exposition, quotidian moments from the characters’ lives, and metaphoric explorations of the play’s conflicts. Borkman’s crimes were evoked by the recent global financial collapse, while Hinkle used an image of Angela Merkle as a puppet; Gunhild, enraged by her [End Page 431] husband’s crimes, hurled cardboard cinderblocks at the audience; Borkman dug his own grave and mined the earth’s minerals; a parade of townspeople circled the Borkman home laughing at their downfall. These conflicts between warring individuals resulted in prolonged scenes of carnage that bathed the stage in buckets of fake blood, feces, and gore, and revealed Vinge and Müller’s aesthetic debt to horror films and performance artists like the Viennese Actionists and Paul McCarthy.
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Vinge and Müller’s trademark artisanal aesthetic and stylized acting reinforced the production’s focus on individualism. By exclusively using their own handmade and painted objects onstage, the artists pitted themselves against a corrupted (or in terms of the production, commoditized and regulated) world. The show’s ensemble of seventy-eight collaborators constructed and painted the extensive costumes, props, and massive diorama-like sets, the sheer scale of which trumpeted the individual’s power to create. (Even so, performers are listed alphabetically in the program, rather than credited for their...