Little Eyolf, Jermyn Street Theatre, London
Revenge and despair in an Ibsen gem
Monday 09 May 2011
It is tempting to suggest that Imogen Stubbs is working off steam in a failed marriage by playing Rita Allmers, Ibsen's aggressively vengeful lady of gold and green forests in Little Eyolf, an inexhaustibly fascinating late play by the old philosopher of the fjords.
And the resolution of her offstage situation, with Stubbs in a new (unnamed) relationship while husband Trevor Nunn is seeing the exotic Nancy Dell'Olio, certainly has a whiff of the grown-up conclusion found among the Ibsenite quartet of Rita, head-in-the-clouds hubby Alfred Allmers, Alfred's half-sister Asta and her loyal road-building engineer, Borgheim. But Ibsen's play is so peculiar, hinging on the mysterious death of a nine-year-old child, little Eyolf, that this overlap of fiction and reality is probably coincidental; it's certainly high time Stubbs tested herself again in a demanding classical role.
There's nothing large or gestural about Anthony Biggs's production, except Stubbs's headlong rush to furious anger and frustration with decidedly mixed results. It's a brave and compelling performance but somehow "manufactured," too, her voice gushing like a geyser and with a fake moment of elemental submission when she pours water over her head and messes her eye make-up to look like Alice Cooper.
But what a play! And not seen in London since this same fluent translation by the late Michael Meyer fuelled Adrian Noble's fine 1997 production with Robert Glenister and Joanne Pearce.
Both married protagonists clear the air by demolishing the "living wall" of their own child. It's only the guilt on both sides, especially on Alfred's, that propels them to any sort of emotional compromise. And the figure of the child-snatching Rat Woman (Doreen Mantle) hovers as ominously as any other spiritual agency in all of Ibsen.
She could seem absurd, but she doesn't, as everyone acknowledges her metaphorical potency, not least Jonathan Cullen's thunderstruck Alfred, whose life work, The Responsibility of Man, has ensured he forgot about his own. Little Eyolf was destined to be his "practical" on the project, and he's punished for this very modern hubris.
I'm not sure how convinced we can be by the play's conclusion, but the performances are surely right to indicate some form of redemption, if not closure.
To 28 May (020 7287 2875)
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