Macbeth, Act 4, Scene 3
Little Eyolf is an Ibsen play I’ve never actually heard of before, but the five stars I gave director Richard Eyre’s previous Ibsen production at the Almeida Theatre, Ghosts, meant I expected much from the same writer-director-theatre combo.
Indeed, many elements of the production are very similar. In the script there’s the classic themes of family, claustrophobia, marriage, women and, oh yeah, a love bordering on incest. Not sure I really want to know why Ibsen was quite so preoccupied with this theme… but I think it’s best to move on quite quickly. The set design, meanwhile, is also similar in its use of a single unchanging room and a dramatic sky in the background. As the show begins, we are greeted by a cool, spacious, pale wooden patio, a lower path behind, and dramatic, changing sky behind. A glowing sun rose from behind craggy mountains, and then was speedily covered by darkening clouds. Light, as in Ghosts, is used by Eyre, designer Tim Hatley, and lighting designer Peter Mumford to dramatise the domestic.
To summarise for those who, like me, had no idea what the plot of Little Eyolf is about; Alfred Allmers (Jolyon Coy) returns to his wife Rita (Lydia Leonard), sister Asta (Eve Posonby) and disabled young son Eyolf (Billy Marlow) from a trip away in the mountains, having experienced an epiphany; Eyolf is the most important thing in his life, and he will stop working, stop writing, in order to spend more time with the boy. But if you’re thinking “wow, this sounds ideal, what a great father” then think again. The tension between Rita and Asta, and Alfred and Rita, is palpable from the very beginning, and Alfred’s decision, followed by devastating tragedy, serves as a catalyst, letting all the bitter heated friction come pouring out in floods.
Now, I personally don’t think that this is one of Ibsen’s greatest plays, but it still has some striking themes. However, Coy as Alfred Allmers really let this production down. If you look back at my reviews, I’m not generally one to criticise actors – perhaps because of my sense of the director’s ultimate power, perhaps because the acting standard is so high nowadays, perhaps because I’m a softy.
But this stilted and proclamatory performance was flawed enough that all three of my companions commented on it immediately after the drama ended. The was Coy played Alfred as this buttoned-up man suddenly dealing with unexpected emotion made no sense when you thought even a little bit about the character’s backstory; Eyre must also be partly to blame here.
Luckily for Eyre, Coy, and us, the two female leads are excellent, and the strength of the production lies predominantly on their capable shoulders. Leonard plays Rita with unspeakable bitterness, and yet her unmotherly emotions, usually an instant cause for condemnation of a character, are expressed with such passion and conviction that, whilst we may not empathise, we can certainly sympathise with her suffering. Posonby, meanwhile, plays a far more sympathetic character and skilfully is able to make the ‘goodness’ of Aster still interesting; the little sister of Alfred, devoted to him, and Rita, and Eyolf, she could so easily be bland or take second place to the fascination of Rita, and yet it was Posonby my eyes were constantly drawn to, even when she had no lines.
The supporting actors have little to play with really, but the actors did well with what they were given; Sam Hazeldine is likeable as Bjarne but overshadowed by Eileen Walsh’s magnificent Rat Woman, complete with heavy Irish brogue, handbag chihuahua and blackened teeth. Billy Marlow as the eponymous Eyolf was one of the cutest children I have ever seen onstage, and played his surprisingly minor role with piping clarity.
This production, then, stars several superb performances from the female actors, and a slick stage design, but is let down by both by the script itself, which seems to me doesn’t explore all the issues it raises properly, and by its stiff leading man. Worth going to see for the issues and for Leonard and Posonby’s performances, but not near the standard of the Almeida’s recent productions (Ghosts, Oresteia, Medea).
Little Eyolf at the Almeida Theatre: 2.5/5 stars