Little Eyolf: The old trouble and strife

Ibsen's Little Eyolf, which opens tonight in London starring Imogen Stubbs, is an unsettling portrait of a marriage in turmoil

A married couple make passionate love under the shower. They are filmed in glisteningly stark black and white and in amazed slow motion, to the accompaniment of an incongruously stately and plangent aria from the Handel opera Rinaldo. As their congress becomes more abandoned, the surrounding world seems to fly apart. When the woman's body drops to the shower room floor, it hits a toddler's jigsaw puzzle, startling a large piece out of its groove and into the air. Next door, their little boy clambers out of his cot and casts a disturbingly undisturbed gaze at the blur of his coupling parents. From then on, it is as if everything conspires (his teddy included) to lure him out on to the window ledge of his room, from which he drops to his death on the snowy street at the very moment that his mother achieves orgasm in graphic close-up.

That is the opening scene of Antichrist, Lars von Trier's profoundly controversial, punishing and brilliant 2009 film about the effect on a marriage of harrowing grief. The film is so unsparing (the woman takes a pair of scissors to her clitoris) and has provoked such outrage that you might think that it represents the last word in cutting-edge adventurousness. In fact – as Anthony Biggs's powerfully cast revival at Jermyn Street Theatre is about to demonstrate – almost all of this was anticipated more than a century earlier, in 1895, in Little Eyolf, perhaps Henrik Ibsen's most ruthless anatomy of what it means to be married and to survive the loss of a child.

In this piece, the title character is a nine-year-old boy who, as a baby, fell from a table and was crippled while his parents were making love. To the parents, the child's disablement is a daily, stinging reproach; it has rendered his father impotent and his mother so resentful of the way the boy has come between herself and her now neutered, would-be-author spouse that, rather as with Macbeth and the witches, it is as though she wills into existence the Rat Wife, an itinerant vermin controller who hypnotises not just the resident rodents but Little Eyolf to a watery grave in the neighbouring fjord.

In Biggs's production, the central couple are played by Jonathan Cullen and Imogen Stubbs. The latter has gone though her own widely publicised matrimonial turmoil of late. Her husband, the director Sir Trevor Nunn, was spotted over the Easter weekend enjoying the company of Nancy dell'Olio, the sometime partner of the former England football manager Sven Goran Eriksson. This bounced Stubbs into making a statement, that she had in fact been with another partner (identity undisclosed) for a while. One of our most intelligent performers, three years ago Stubbs pondered the meaning of marriage in a revealing and acute newspaper article that was published when she was starring in Ingmar Bergman's Ibsenesque Scenes from a Marriage, directed by Nunn.

As it happens, Bergman's play was one of the things she raised when we met, after a rehearsal. My hunch is that her performance as Rita, the wife in Little Eyolf – which was always likely to be riveting – will be raised to an even greater pitch of nervous intensity by the exposure, in the latter stages of the production's preparation, of such upset in her private life.

Almost alarmingly in advance of public taste in its frankness about sex and its dissection of those things that merely resemble love without constituting it (guilt masquerading as grief, say), Little Eyolf speaks with particular force to our own age, in which smothering over-protectiveness towards children co-exists with a certain callous emotional neglect.

"Grief makes one cruel," declares Allmers, the bereaved father in Little Eyolf. On that point, Ibsen's play is at one with Antichrist which, though I have not seen it acknowledged anywhere, seems to me to be in intimate conversation with Ibsen's play. For example, in Antichrist it turns out (at least in one version of reality) that the child's mother had been systematically putting his shoes on the wrong way round, as though crippling him in readiness for fatal accident.

The difference is that in Antichrist, the grieving couple enter a hermetically hellish world of their own (with the grisly twist that the husband, who is a therapist, usurps the role of his wife's actual therapist, with all the twisted violations of propriety that entails during bouts of alternately pacifying and punitive sex). In Little Eyolf, the couple are more broadly and penetratingly defined by their economic and affective relations. Because of A Doll's House, in which the heroine eventually slams the door on a stifling and infantilising marriage, Ibsen has been classified as a feminist writer in some quarters. But he publicly disavowed this tag, arguing that his concern was with "the problems of humanity in general". Unlike David Hare, say, who clocks up Brownie points by creating idealistic female characters who glibly toe the Hare line, Ibsen manages to protest against the frustrations of the female lot while creating heroines who are unnervingly and realistically flawed. Take Hedda Gabler. The dramatist succeeds in making our nerves jangle at the intolerability of her predicament while exposing the heroine as a manipulatively destructive moral coward.

Michael Meyer, the translator of the version of Little Eyolf used by Biggs and company and an ardent advocate of a play he describes as "one of the old master's supreme achievements... a long, sustained and terrifying [surgical] operation", has suggested that Rita is like the discontented Hedda Gabler, but equipped with money and children. Allmers partly married her for her wealth, which made him a kept husband, free to work on the kind of unfinishable scholarly magnum opus (like Casaubon's The Key to All the Mythologies in Middlemarch) that haunts marriages in 19th-century literature. As Stubbs and Cullen point out, the projected book is one of the many things that come between husband and wife in the play – the others include Allmers' (putative) half-sister, Asta, whom he dressed in boy's uniform and called Eyolf for kinky, quasi-incestuous games when they were young. One of Ibsen's most radical strokes, though, is to show how even when alive, Little Eyolf is less of a son to the couple than the non-sexual third party in a sterile travesty of a ménage à trois, the resented gravitational pull that holds them together.

The Ibsen who wrote this play would have appreciated the phantom son who is a pawn in lacerating marital games in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? He would have understood the neurasthenic nightmare à deux of the childless couple in "The Game of Chess" section of The Waste Land. A line TS Eliot omitted as too painful to his own plight with his first wife, Vivien, was "The ivory men make company between us". There is Vivien's piteous marginal scrawl on the manuscript: "What you get married for if you don't want to have children?"

It is not a flaw in Ibsen's play but a fault in the couple that Little Eyolf is not remembered though smell or touch or taste. There is something horribly notional about him before his death that leaves his parents grappling not just with grief but with the terrible prospect of being alone together. Stubbs and Cullen emphasise how Rita and Allmers are never by themselves until the final scene and that far from being a falling-off (as early reviews suggested), this section is the culminating naked combat in which the pair's decision to stay together and provide a refuge for needy children (as a sort of municipal recompense for prior selfishness) is meant to ring as problematically wishful and provisional. Cullen emphasises how truthful the play is about the distractions as well as the distractedness of grief – the day after the disaster, Allmers finds his mind sidetracked to thoughts of what is for dinner. Stubbs points out that Allmers, in destroying Rita's religious faith, has left her with no fall-back position.

The National Theatre recently mounted Mrs Affleck, an adaptation of Little Eyolf by Samuel Adamson, and when I mention my annoyance with it (the complete red herring of the 1950s update, the failure to locate what is centrally painful and profound in the original), Biggs admits that his frustrations after seeing it led to this production.

In Tennyson's "In Memoriam", an elegy to a loved friend rather than a child, there is the great line: "On the bald streets breaks the blank day." This production, played in period, will show how, after the heightened intensities of grief, Little Eyolf is also radical in demonstrating how after such suffering, the bereaved couple must learn to bear stoically life's level effrontery in daring to subside back to room temperature and common human misery.

'Little Eyolf', Jermyn Street Theatre, London SW1 (020 7287 2875; to 28 May