Little Eyolf, Almeida Theatre, review: ‘Luminous though uninvolving’

Little Eyolf

Little Eyolf - Credit: Archant

Ibsen’s tragic tale of sexual repression and parental loss is pure, but without the original terror, says Caroline David.

Little Eyolf, one of Ibsen’s last plays, was written after Hedda Gabler and Ghosts – both were directed to great acclaim by Richard Eyre at the Almeida. The elliptical mix of naturalism, expressionism and the supernatural in Little Eyolf is harder to pull off. Adapted and directed by Eyre, the text is crystal-clear. While it’s easy to see where Ibsen’s raging mother Rita Allmers [Lydia Leonard] fits into the Almeida’s season following on from Rupert Goold’s contemporary Medea, Eyre’s production struggles to seem as relevant.

Rita is trapped in a sexless marriage. When her husband Alfred [Jolyon Coy] returns from a period in the mountains penning a book about the responsibility of fatherhood, he proclaims he wants to devote himself to caring for their disabled son Eyolf [Tom Hibberd on press night]. Rita rails against him, ‘I don’t want to be just a mother, I want to be everything to you.’ But Alfred is riven with guilt about his longing for his half sister Asta [Eve Ponsonby]. The impromptu arrival of the local Rat-catcher Woman, a pied-piper figure [Eileen Walsh with a real dog in tow – more dozy lapdog than rat killer], spells imminent tragedy.

The production emphasizes the elemental: projections of water suggesting drowning; delicate lighting conjuring up the Northern climate. There is a powerful sense of the knife-edge dance between surfaces and hidden depths. Leonard is ice and fire, sardonic to begin with, torn apart by anger and grief later on.

Tim Hatley’s Scandinavian design of clean lines is luminous though uninvolving. Eyre chooses to play the end-note as redemptive with a soft-focus smattering of stars. In the programme, Eyre comments that watching Little Eyolf can be a terrifying experience. The purity of this staging is impressive but there’s little that’s terrifying here.

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Rating: 3/5 stars

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