'Little Eyolf' review or 'I smell a rat.'
Little Eyolf, Ibsen (adapted by Richard Eyre)
Almeida Theatre, 27th November 2015
It’s better to think of Ibsen’s ‘Little Eyolf’ – one of his later works – as a stage-poem rather than a play. Take all the ugly emotions in ‘Hedda Gabler’ and ‘A Doll’s House’, strip out anything that isn’t directly linked to despair and you’ll be left with ‘Eyolf’. It’s as if the body of Ibsen’s writing has been torn away and all that is left is bloody sinew, open veins and a solitary beating heart. It’s a tough, intense play to watch and I’m not convinced Richard Eyre’s production really nails the tone – it feels a bit too formal and elegant - but it’s still a chilling piece of theatre.
Tim Hatley’s dream-like design sets the tone for a deeply lyrical production. White slats line the floor, walls and ceiling. An abstract mountainous backdrop sweeps across the back wall. It is a cold and lonely space but pure too, as if the slate has been wiped clean and anything might happen.
This cool home is where Alfred Allmers (Jolyon Coy), his wife Rita and their sickly son Eyolf (Billy Marlow) live. It also home to Alfred’s ‘sort of sister’ Asta (Eve Ponsonby), who grew up with Alfred and whose love for her ‘brother’ has shifted and warped over the years. The play opens with Alfred returning home after a stint writing in the mountains. Asta and Rita orbit around Alfred, Asta hovering close by and Rita sat alone on the sofa, apart from both her husband and son.
The opening scenes rattle strangely: this is a world where emotions – either repressed or forbidden - have no place to land. Engineer Borgheim appears – hankering after Asta – and his naïve zest for life bounces limply off the walls. A raggedy woman appears and tells a strange story about leading a legion of rats to their watery graves. When she leaves, Asta wipes the sofa clean but the rat lady’s presence lingers. This is a space that seems to soak up the ugly feelings and repel the good ones.
It’s all very eerie and sad but it also feels quite measured and stiff; as if ‘Eyolf’ was a traditional play with something missing at its centre, rather than an altogether different - much spookier and stranger – beast. It isn’t until Rita (Lydia Leonard) confronts her husband that Eyre’s production begins to burn and scorch us. Desperate to get closer to her husband – who has now decided to devote all his energies to bringing up their son – Rita batters him with bitterness, jealousy and reproach. The softer and warmer emotions are too far buried and, after all these years, beyond Rita’s reach. This could have been such a cold performance from Leonard but a shadow of lost warmth and passion trails Rita everywhere she goes. If we strain hard, we can spot the ghost of a passionate lady now lost for good. At one point, Rita opens up her nightgown and reveals her naked body to her passive and motionless husband. It is the loneliest sight in the world.
When tragedy hits this couple, the mountainous backdrop is swamped by swirling water. Later, as both husband and wife are haunted by the memory of their son, Eyolf’s huge eyes are projected against the landscape. It is a bold expression of a life subsumed by regret and loss but these visual sweeps land oddly. The stage begins to feel like a picture book when it should feel like an impossibly bleak poem, soaked in tears. There’s something about Eyre’s production that feels a little too accessible, as if he trying to give shape to a piece of writing which refuses to be marshalled. ‘Little Eyolf’ is really just one great and shapeless sigh; an ode to heartbreak and loneliness. It is a devastating slip of a play and, in attempting to create some sort of order, Eyre has let go of some of the boundless grief that ‘Eyolf’ contains.