“Is there something troublesome that gnaws in your house?”
My history with Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen has not been an easy one, I don’t think I have really enjoyed a single production of his work but yet I put myself through it time and time in the hope that something will click and I will finally see what it is that makes others acclaim him as one of the finest ever playwrights. Little Eyolf, playing at the Jermyn Street Theatre, is one of his lesser performed work although an updated (to the 1950s) version of it by Samuel Adamson, the little-loved Mrs Affleck, played at the National Theatre in 2009.
Eyolf is a nine year old boy on crutches, crippled after an accident as a baby. His father Alfred returns from a spiritual retreat to the nearby mountains, with a new determination to abandon his writing in favour of dedicating his life to his son. This new-found devotion drives his wife Rita to insane jealousy as she is already suspicious of his close relationship with his sister Asta. But when the mysterious Ratwife arrives at their house with her offer of cleansing them of ‘bad’ things, a devastating event follows which utterly changes life for everyone.
And dear reader, much to my surprise, I really liked it. Little Eyolf is a much more realistic-feeling, human drama than I have been used to with previous productions of his other plays. Its structure is carefully plotted so that almost all the action is compressed into the first half and after the cataclysmic event that takes us into the interval, the second half is all bruising, revealing, excoriating talk as the tragic consequences begin to unfold and impact on the characters left behind.
Imogen Stubbs is the star name and she impresses, particularly in the first half, as one of Ibsen’s archetypal modern-before-their-time women, a mother struggling to deal with the limitations imposed upon her life by society and indeed her husband. She burns brilliantly here and her subsequent grief and regret therefore almost too raw. But it was Nadine Lewington as her sister-in-law who really captures the attention with a beautiful poise, economy of movement and emotional subtlety that is just compelling. And as the man caught between them, Jonathan Cullen was also strong as the tormented writer, trying to be all things to all people and weighed down with a huge guilt. These three dominate the second half with its stripping down to bare emotional truths at the centre of these characters and they reach superbly tragic depths as events and responsibilities overtake them and their deepest desires.
Fabrice Serafino’s design is spare, coating the walls in a brilliant cerulean blue and providing little other distraction, rather focusing on heightening the emotional intensity of the piece which is played in period dress. The only real weaknesses came with the child and the dog, proving the well-known maxim to be somewhat apt, the dog in particular being a spectacularly dodgy moment. But with excellent supporting performances from an ominously creepy Doreen Mantle and a handsome, kindly Robin Pearce, a still-fresh and powerful translation from Michael Meyer and a sterling production led by director Anthony Biggs, I suspect the Jermyn Street may have another hit on their hands.