Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Theatre review: Little Eyolf

Richard Eyre returns to the Almeida to conclude a trilogy he began during the previous regime, and his admirable project of improving Ibsen plays by making them quite short. Little Eyolf is the latest play Eyre has adapted and directed, and though it's not quite got the fireworks of recent productions at the venue, it does have a concentrated intensity. There's a lot of Pied Piper metaphor hanging over this story of a young couple whose marriage is broken apart by guilt. Writer Alfred (Jolyon Coy) returns to his family after a trip to the nearby mountains, having made a decision: He's giving up the moralising book he's been trying and failing to write for years, and instead will focus all his time on raising his disabled son Eyolf (Tom Hibberd, alternating with Adam Greaves-Neal and Billy Marlow,) making the child his legacy.

This isn't the news his wife Rita (Lydia Leonard) had been hoping for; she's been feeling neglected, especially sexually, for years, and now she finally no longer has to share her husband with his work, she has to share him with their son instead.

The Pied Piper figure is the Rat Woman (Eileen Walsh,) who comes to the house looking for work at the same time that Alfred and Rita are arguing about Eyolf, and Rita wishes he'd never been born. When Eyolf drowns Alfred becomes convinced the Rat Woman somehow lured him to his death. But it soon becomes apparent both he and his wife really blame themselves not only for Eyolf's death but a lot more, and bringing it out into the open might repair or finally bury their marriage.

Eyre has talked a lot about how modern Ibsen's writing is, and it does seem so in this late play: Little Eyolf was written while psychoanalysis was still in its infancy, but it's steeped in complex sexual psychology - a revelation about halfway through about how Eyolf got his disability explains a lot about how Alfred's guilt caused his sexual indifference to his wife, while there's an uncomfortable suggestion of incest between him and his half-sister Asta (Eve Ponsonby,) who can't commit to the romantic advances of a neighbour (Sam Hazeldine) because of her feelings for her brother. But the heart of the play is in the way the couple's reactions to tragedy pull them apart - Leonard maintaining an aggressive sexuality and trying to cope by focusing on her husband, Coy by contrast showing Alfred as cold and distant, his attentions split between his son and sister.

There's a couple of bum notes to the production - once or twice the combination of John Leonard's music and Jon Driscoll's projections has an inappropriate Sunset Beach feel - but while I have a mixed response to Ibsen's Nordic bleakness, overall this was one that worked for me: Eyre's brisk but brutal take sucks you into the unfolding entropy.

Little Eyolf by Henrik Ibsen in a version by Richard Eyre is booking until the 9th of January at the Almeida Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes straight through.

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