Pros: A simple yet devastating play, heightened by simple yet devastating design.
Cons: Too immaculate to move us.
As far as I am aware Richard Eyre is to Ibsen (modern interpretations of) as Robin is to Batman. His previous adaptations of Hedda Gabler and Ghosts reached unparalleled critical acclaim and had awards coming out of their ears. That was enough of a fanfare for me to give Ibsen another bash. It’s not that I ever lost the psychological intrigue of his work, more that the A-Level syllabus (as is so often the case) really exhausted my interest. Hedda Gabler is damaging and depressing enough without having to sift through each line term after term, destroying empathy altogether and making Ibsen seem somewhat barren. And that is precisely the thing about Ibsen: there are no bells and no whistles, just the honest presentation of the flaws and delicacy of the human condition. It is disturbing through its familiarity; its bareness and its lack of a sugar coating.
In Eyre’s version of Little Eyolf, it is this bareness that is starkly standing before us. Tim Hatley’s design is almost clinical: white washed walls in which a husband and wife, detached and bitter, are trapped. There is a whole world projected behind them; mountains, nature, sea, the world, which they can’t touch and don’t see. They are claustrophobically surrounded with their own unhappiness and resentment. It is beautiful, but its lightness makes the set appear more expansive than the insular narrative demands. This contributed to the fact that I felt as detached from the characters as they do to each other.
Another huge factor contributing to my detachment was the characterisation itself. In Richard Eyre’s introduction to his adaptation, he states that James Joyce once described Ibsen’s plays as containing ‘men and women as we meet them in real life, not as we apprehend them in the world of faery’. True enough of the script, but the characters are not as we’d find them in real life. They are preened and polished: their emotional integrity is obscured as it makes its way through intricately controlled pronunciation and tightly controlled performance. An audience can disagree with every single thought, feeling or action a character has, but they still have to understand their motives. There has to be a likability factor. Lydia Leonard plays Rita, the estranged wife who has torn herself through desperation and failure to be at the forefront of her husband’s attention. Leonard literally and figuratively strips herself bare as she tears through the anguish. She is brilliant, but impeccably so; she skips rawness and empathy, jumping straight to external agony. ‘Men and women in real life’ don’t have hearts that break only on the outside.
Little Eyolf, on paper, is psychologically intense. Drawing people in, heart by heart, through recognition. This version’s starkness remains a little too much on the surface to coax us.
Author: Henrik Ibsen
Director: Richard Eyre
Producer: Almeida Theatre
Booking Until: 09/01/2016
Box Office: 02073594404
Booking Link: http://www.almeida.co.uk/whats-on/little-eyolf/16-nov-2015-9-jan-2016