I was not familiar with Ibsen’s Little Eyolf before last night’s production and I have to admit that after a thoroughly enjoyable, thought provoking evening I fear I am not a lot the wiser. This, after all, was a new play “after” Henrik Ibsen by Amitai Landau-Pope, and indeed the original play was the construct on which was hung a myriad of themes, theories and emotions, from the anticipated Ibsen pathos to a surprising amount of laughter and a few tears during Elvis’ rendering of “Bridge over Trouble Water”.
It was evident from Abby McCann’s opening stand-up routine that this was not going to be a straightforward interpretation of the play. Soliloquy pieces to the mic, for all the characters, featured heavily throughout the production, with the mic being the indicator of breaks from the traditional parts of the play, together with short back-projected hints as to where we were in the action. These signs were particularly helpful and at times amusing, none more so than when the production revisited Act II (a very unusual but ultimately enlightening dramatic construct). Each member of the cast explored, through reference to “The Director’s Craft”, their motivations, relationships, emotions and interpretation of events. This could have been patronizing and awkward but was actually both insightful and entertaining.
Having touched on Jonathan Tanner’s lighting and back projections I should also give a nod to Georgiana Wilson’s effective minimal set – one sofa and, significantly, one red rug. A colour scheme continued in Astrid Breitenstein’s costumes where I particularly liked the cast’s red socks (and the lack of shoes really helped as shod performances at the Burton Taylor can often be quite clunky and intrusive) but surely Hannah Patient deserved to complete the theme in a pair of red tights – perhaps this was a deliberate ploy to demonstrate Rita’s separateness from her family.
Indeed, family relationships is one of the central themes of Little Eyolf but this interpretation, played in the modern day, also brought in to the mix such things as social media, data harvesting and the evils of Cambridge Analytica – the type of research Alfred was involved in. Given Eyolf’s tragic leg injury, disability was also discussed. The difficulties in Rita and Alfred’s marriage were explored, as were the nature of step-relationships and jealousy among siblings.
Rather than be intrusive, the actors’ discussions of their own personal trials and tribulations brought immediacy to the emotion of the play, with glimpses of genuine lived experience. This was evident when Ben Millard (Eyolf) listed the possible reasons for his character’s suicide i.e. the difficulties of being 15, disappointment in his parent’s, particularly his father, and his lack of feeling – not only physically in his leg but his lack of empathy for the other characters. And the device brought a dramatically satisfying conclusion: Abby McCann’s final piece to the audience, discussing the telephone call from her mother to inform her of her own brother’s suicide (and we all dread that call and I know from personal experience how it can change your life and the world you live in, in a moment, forever). Here, she tearfully brought heartfelt pain and genuine sorrow to the conclusion of the piece, and I totally understood why she did not want to read her brother’s final letter to her and how sad it was that he only felt it important enough to put a second class stamp on the letter. This was a fittingly wretched end to an Ibsen play.
I did wonder how much of tonight’s piece Henrik would have recognized and whilst I accept that there might have been little of his original text here I would like to think that he would have recognized many of the themes, theories and emotions explored in this dramatic interpretation. Although the play is no longer scandalous as it was to the Victorians who were shocked by the references to sex – little Eyolf’s leg was paralysed when he fell off a table whilst his parents had sex – we were aware in this modern interpretation of our society’s shock and concern about child neglect, social media, data harvesting, suicide etc.
Ultimately the emotional themes portrayed - love, jealousy, regret and guilt - are perennial themes of human existence. For sure this is a personal reaction to tonight’s performance and others will react to and interpret the play differently, but I am convinced that everyone who sees the play will find it interesting, engaging and thought-provoking. Don’t take my word for it: the play runs through Saturday - go and find out for yourself.