Little Eyolf

By Milhous, Judith | Ibsen News and Comment, January 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

Little Eyolf


Milhous, Judith, Ibsen News and Comment


Almeida Theatre, London

November 19, 2015-January 9, 2016

Compared to his earlier plays, Little Eyolf is a script that Ibsen himself "stripped down" in some respects. Certainly that term applies to Richard Eyre's production at the Almeida, which I saw late in its run. I confess to reservations about how much more this already-disencumbered script can afford to lose, though better a spare production with a clear idea than one choked with competing impulses.

Promoting this play, the Almeida season brochure asks, "How is a life well lived?" and speaks of "a forensic examination of a marriage as it explosively falls apart." While this characterization may have come entirely from the publicity department, I report it because its irony-free rhetoric matches my experience of the production. In a programme essay, Eyre designates Little Eyolf" the godparent of many plays about marriage" and points to titles by Strindberg, O'Neill, Williams, Albee, and Whitehead, as well as "countless TV dramas" among its progeny. He also hopes that his "version" will seem "spontaneous to an audience of today." This agenda affects everything we see, as well as a variety of subtexts of which we see little or no evidence.

As usual in this theatre, there is no curtain. This time, the playing space, thrust forward, is a fairly narrow and confined veranda, with much of the stage depth used for the outlines of an eastfacing ijord, where a red-rimmed sun came up as the play began. Nothing identifiable by period or style appears on the set, so neutral that the burden of showing money and class falls mostly on the costumes. However, designer Tim Hatley pretty much finessed those issues: this household is not poor, but the question of how rich it is-very rich, in the play-went not just unmentioned but largely unexplored. Unrailed steps, attached to the back edge of the platform, connect invisibly to ground level. Below the steps, also concealed, is a hill steep enough to leave active people stretched when they walked up it. The color palette was very limited: bland walls, unvariegated landscape. But lighting designer Peter Mumford and video provider Jon Driscoll took full advantage of their opportunities: the sun could blaze; the ijord could glow or blacken, show silver or green; likewise, the sky varied. While nothing on this set distracted from the actors, the space was also rather sterile, compared to the plant-lined conservatory, forest glade, and garden retreat in Ibsen's stage directions (a positively burgeoning environment, coming from him)..

I was surprised to see Rita enter in a peachcolored silk robe, tied at the waist, which looked rather 1930-ish and misled me into thinking the time might have been moved forward. But other costumes were late nineteenth-century, so the date of the action was apparently meant to be contemporaneous with the play's writing, in 1894. Rita (Lydia Leonard), tall, dark, and quite attractive, was hyperactive, although not fidgety: her constant movement was usually purposeful. With her mobile face and body, Leonard was able to display the full range of Rita's chaotic emotions. She was also wonderful at expressing contradictions, often saying one thing but showing another: her words welcomed Asta, but she did not interrupt the rifling of Allmers's knapsack; later she dangled before Allmers the prospect of an affair with Borgheim, while checking out of the corner of her eye to see how he might take the threat. This Rita went into full elaborate Victorian mourning for Eyolf, unlike anyone else (a shocking sight in the neutral environment), but made clear immediately that the ritual gesture had not satisfied her. She fought with Allmers bravely, then desperately, when projecting his departure. Yet when she proposed to rescue the tenants' children, apparently in response to Allmers's prior bloviating on human responsibility, Leonard played this as a genuine intention, however inept Rita realized she might initially be at carrying it out. …

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