Paul Scofield is wonderfully compelling in this role in Richard Eyre's Lyttelton production. Exuding the air of a self-made man, he looks ever so faintly like an elderly teddy boy as he paces around the prison of his drawing room, sprucely attired in readiness to receive the deputation he believes will one day arrive and beg him to make a comeback. His booming voice, with its hints of his low origins, the wagging forefinger, the posing as if for an official portrait bespeak dogmatic delusion. Unable to acknowledge his despair, this is a man who, after 13 years of withdrawal from public life, can still fancy himself a Napoleon-in-waiting.
The arrival of his wife's twin sister, Ella, the woman whose love he betrayed and sold in pursuit of his career, launches a sequence of events that ends with his venturing out of doors and dying on the snowy mountainside. Ella is played by Vanessa Redgrave in a performance whose effectiveness is marred by a surfeit of distracting mannerisms and over-done changes of rhythm. But, great actress that she is, there are moments when the aching desolateness of this dying woman and the avenging solicitude of her approach towards Borkman come across with power and simplicity.
As Borkman's wife, Eileen Atkins brings some superb snide comedy to her competitive bouts with Ella and with her son's married mistress, who is played with just the right edge of confident, worldly disdain by Felicity Dean. The other splendid cameo is Michael Bryant's Foldal, the old clerk whose delusions of being a poet make him Borkman's comic double. One of the best bits of the play is the extraordinary scherzo-like section of the last act when Foldal innocently rejoices in his daughter's escape to Europe even though the carriage conveying her has just run over his foot. This sudden lack of self-pity in a play that's awash with it is like a little chink of sunlight in enveloping gloom.
Eyre's production introduces some shrewd bits of naturalistic business, as when the accidental breaking of a vase comically breaks the ice in the sisters' first interview, or when the obsessiveness of the characters is brought home by showing how, even when alone, they rehearse their feuding encounters like mad people. From this circumstantial detail to the permafrost poetry and symbolism of the last act, the production makes a sure climb, with Scofield's performance ascending to an even higher level of greatness.
In rep at the Lyttelton Theatre, London SE1 (0171-928 2252)