Almeida Theatre, London (****)
Richard Eyre, the National Theatre’s former supremo is making himself something of a specialist when it comes to Ibsen. Having adapted and directed Hedda Gabler and Ghosts to loud acclaim, now he’s taken on Ibsen’s less familiar Little Eyolf. What emerges is a taut chamber portrait of marriage and guilt – a template for later studies of marital warfare from Strindberg to Albee.The Almeida is the same theatre where director Rupert Goold has just concluded a staggering five month binge on Greek tragedy, the last of them being Medea in a highly charged feminist version by novelist Rachel Cusk.
Watching Eyre’s cut back, nipped and tucked Little Eyolf, sited for its entire 80 minute length within one room, similarities between Ibsen and Euripides are impossible to ignore. Then again, perhaps the similarities are more of the similar time zones of their adapters than the original writers themselves. Cusk and Eyre are writing for now, influenced by today. Indeed Eyre gets in a pre-emptive defence when he writes in the programme: `the choices we make are made according to taste, to the times we live in and how we view the world.’
Certainly Lydia Leonard’s Rita Allmers seems like a chip off the old Medea block in her passion, her possessiveness, her uncompromising refusal to share her husband with anyone, least of all her sister-in-law, Asta, like her husband Alfred, orphaned.
Alfred, (Jolyon Coy, bespectacled, earnest, emotionally pinched), shares a complex relationship with Eve Ponsonby’s luminous Asta – in childhood sometimes referred to as `little Eyolf’ (not for nothing is Ibsen sometimes accused of over-symbolism!). Eyre’s version, apart from many fine things, is rare in showing a brother and sister in such close and nuanced proximity, bringing out in countless silent ways the support and nourishment each is able to give to the other, indeed bordering on the romantic or even incestuous.
Asta’s realisation of teetering on the edge is just one of many emotional clash points in a production that opens with heart-stopping beauty, the peep of a sun rising above fjords and a swishing water soundscape.
Symbols abound around water (subliminal, the unconscious) and rats (gnawing away like guilt and conscience) as Rita and Alfred play out their awful/aweful strife of love and marriage turned sour by obsession, later by grief at the loss of their only son, Eyolf.
Beware what you wish for could be the sub-title of this version. Rita, consumed by frustration from her increasingly isolated, self-obsessed writer husband (Eyre’s decision to demonstrate her marital angst by making Leonard expose her breasts is one of his more gratuitous choices) sees her wish brought to fruition in dreadful fashion – a wish-fulfillment that almost but not quite breaks the marriage. Quite unexpectedly, redemption – for Alfred and Rita at least – is at hand, a touch idealistic maybe but one nonetheless forged through a painful facing of reality.
You can sense something quite special has passed in this version by the audience’s silence. There is a simplicity yet claustrophobic intensity about Little Eyolf that, like Medea and other Greek tragedies, traps you in its world and does not let go until its denouement.
Eyre has found a beguiling balance between the old Norwegian’s intention and our modern-day sensibilities. Shorn of ponderous exposition, nifty on its feet and bathed in Tim Hatley’s limpid Norwegian white box setting, even a character as finger-pointing as `the rat woman’ turns up in the form of the always excellent Eileen Walsh’s Irish traveller (with live small dog in tow) as haunting and freshly acceptable.
Highly recommended. A triumph, no less.
Little Eyolf runs at the Almeida Theatre to January 9, 2016
Review first published in Londongrip Nov 2015