Richard Eyre has an outstanding track record with Ibsen: his earlier two revivals at this address have been an award-winning Hedda Gabler and 2013’s searing Ghosts . With Tiny Eyolf he tends to make it, if you like, a trio of miserable marriages and desperate housewives. But exactly where Ghosts cohered superbly, Small Eyolf proves a trickier prospect. Once again Eyre, in his own adaptation, distils the original to concentrate on the — shockingly honest — emotional journey of the story and its potent mix of naturalism and symbolism. But the result this time is far more hit and miss and despite a brilliant lead in Lydia Leonard’s Rita, it eventually feels rather disjointed and unconvincing.
Where Tim Hatley’s set for Ghosts was a claustrophobic interior, right here it is a bleached wooden veranda overlooking a spectacular fjord landscape, which modifications mood with the shifting clouds and with the equally craggy and pitiless emotional terrain of the play. That neat wooden deck soon becomes both refuge and prison for the central couple Rita and Alfred, trapped in a sexless marriage and plagued with guilt more than their diabled son.
Sex lurks like a rat beneath the floorboards. Jolyon Coy’s stiff, bookish Alfred is plagued by feelings he daren’t even contemplate for his sister (Eve Ponsonby, deftly charting her character’s journey from devotion to dismay) any desire he had for his wife Rita has burned out, transformed into physical revulsion by the reality that their boy’s injury occurred when they were creating adore. Previously he has buried himself in writing a book, but when he announces that he is henceforth going to devote himself to small Eyolf, Rita’s misery, jealousy and aggravation boil over. In a vicious outburst, she even laments the very existence of Eyolf — only to bitterly regret this when, shortly afterwards, the child drowns.
Leonard is very some thing in this scene: ugly, cruel, pitiful, and suddenly pathetic when she strips off in the hope of seducing her appalled husband. And, following the child’s death, she and Coy rake painfully through the guilt and grief that both join and divide them. There’s a frankness to these exchanges that even now is excruciating, harrowingly delivered by Leonard and Coy.
But for all this, their anguish remains curiously unmoving. Eyre’s stark, spare staging embraces the rawness of the psychological drama. But it can’t overcome the fact that the plot shifts driving that drama typically feel engineered or heavy-handed or make the shift towards redemption at the end fairly ring accurate.
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