Richard Eyre is going for an Ibsen hat-trick. After two acclaimed productions of the Norwegian playwright at the Almeida in London – Hedda Gabler in 2005, starring a scorching Eve Best alongside Benedict Cumberbatch, and the award-garlanded Ghosts with Lesley Manville in 2013 – he's back at the same theatre with Little Eyolf. Written in 1894, it's a later and comparatively little-performed work. As with his previous productions, the former National Theatre head has adapted the play as well as directing; his leading lady is Lydia Leonard, who recently lit up the stage as a caustic Anne Boleyn in the RSC's Wolf Hall, and the screen as Virginia Woolf in the BBC's Bloomsbury Set drama, Life in Squares.
Eyre's versions of Hedda and Ghosts were notable for their fleetness – direct and crisp, the idiom freshly clear to the modern ear, while avoiding any anachronisms that would jar with their late 19th-century milieu. Ghosts especially was lauded for cutting a sometimes ponderous play into 90 minutes of swift devastation. Eyre's Little Eyolf follows suit: it runs to 80 minutes without an interval.
This time, however, the 72-year-old insists Ibsen can take the credit for the feverishly dramatic compression. “I haven't made huge cuts at all. But in the course of those 80 minutes, a child dies, a marriage is eviscerated, there's another love story going on in parallel, plus a revelation [about a] brother and sister and a latent love affair.” He pauses, and acknowledges with a smile that it is “quite a lot to get in 80 minutes!”
“There's intense emotion from start to finish,” acknowledges Leonard. The 34-year-old plays Rita, a dissatisfied wife and mother; her husband, Alfred, has been so wrapped up writing a philosophical tome called – oh, the irony! – The Responsibility of Being Human, that he neglects his family. Suddenly, he decides to ditch the book and dedicate his life to raising their young son, Eyolf, who is disabled. But such new-found parental dedication sends Rita into a jealous, possessive rage: she wants her husband all to herself. She even declares she wishes her son had “never been born” – words that will probably shock a 2015 audience just as much as an 1894 one. In the middle of this nasty argument, news comes that Eyolf has drowned. Rita and Alfred are soon drowning, too, in their own whirlpool of grief and cruelty, pulling each other under with some of the most compellingly vicious arguments ever written for the stage. There's a shard of hope at the end, but whether it's true transformation or self-delusion is moot.
Not that Rita is all bad – this is Ibsen after all. She's one of his brilliant, sparkling, complex, difficult women. She's sharp and clever, but frustrated – and burning up with anger at being spurned. Hell hath no fury and all that. And in her refusal to be defined simply as doting mother, she feels like a controversially contemporary character – Eyre points to the huge opprobrium heaped on Rachel Cusk (whose version of Medea preceded them at the Almeida) when she dared publish a book ambivalent towards motherhood, A Life's Work.
“It's strikingly modern,” agrees Leonard, who on reading the “shockingly” frank play, was absolutely desperate to play Rita. “It's a cliché that you read a part and feel you know it, but I really did [think] 'I have to play this role!' Obviously, I'm not like her, but you recognise some of the behaviour: most people have been in horrible arguments with their partner.”
Ibsen is known for altering the course of theatre in many ways – dubbed “the father of modern drama”, he not only pioneered realism but also scandalised audiences with work that exposed society's hypocrisy, and in doing so, often put troubled women centre-stage. And Little Eyolf adds another string to that strummable bow: the heated marital fights echo loudly down 20th-century drama. This play is the blueprint, Eyre claims, for dramas of mutual destruction from Strindberg's Dance of Death to Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage.
Despite this, Eyre is also a genuine fan of Rita: “She's married someone she thinks is her intellectual superior, but she's brighter… I actually think she's really attractive, and really sexy.” She is – and slightly more so than usual in this production…
Rita has a scene where she reprimands Alfred for rejecting her; in the original, it's conveyed with a line of poetry – “There stood the champagne, but he tasted it not” – but Eyre chooses to spell it out. His Rita is deliciously frank about her sexual desires – and not just in words. Rita disrobes, to try to tempt her husband back. “I've just extended the subtext, to dial up that moment,” insists Eyre, with just a twitch of defensiveness. “And I think completely legitimately.”
Does Leonard have any nerves about getting naked on stage? “Yeah, loads! Yup. It's many people's nightmare – like, actual literal nightmare. But [the nudity] is non-gratuitous, it's not sexy – it's actually really vulnerable. I think it's a heartbreaking moment.”
Leonard grew up in Hampshire, and went to the progressive private school, Bedales, where she fell in love with drama, going on to study acting at the Bristol Old Vic. “There was a small element of teenage rebellion – I'm certainly not from an acting family,” says Leonard. “But my parents were, much to my irritation, extremely supportive.” Her father is an accountant, and her mother was a teacher, but now works as a costume historian. Leonard jokes that the first performance notes she gets from her mum are always about what she's wearing.
Eyre has been working in the theatre for more than 50 years now – he began as an actor (“I wasn't very good”), before falling into directing. He ran the National Theatre from 1988 to 1997, and has also directed television dramas (most recently The Dresser with Ian McKellen and Anthony Hopkins), Oscar-nominated films (Notes on a Scandal; Iris), and international opera. His next project is Manon Lescaut, opening at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in February.
He is, in fact, a one-man banner for Britain's greatness in the arts. The sort of export you'd think politicians would hold up as a gleaming example of not only artistic excellence, but also the UK's cultural prowess, profitability and reach. Apparently not. Not that he'd ever couch it in such personal terms – but Eyre is quietly bewildered by politicians and their attitude towards the entire British cultural establishment.
“You never hear a single expression of support or interest or validation from any politician, despite the fact that the 'creative industries' – as they're called by politicians – are about the healthiest export that the country has. You go outside this country and people go, the BBC – you're so lucky. You have the greatest theatre. Our visual arts are so fantastic, our fiction, music… it's just the envy of the world, but you wouldn't know it. You really wouldn't.”
Back to Little Eyolf and I mention the recent trend of theatrical marathons. Eyre has done three Ibsens at the Almeida now – would he consider staging them as a trilogy, over the course of a day? It would be pretty intense – all that guilt and death and love and passion – but, given the nimbleness of Eyre's versions, it could be done.
His eyes light up at the idea. “It would be very, very, very interesting…” Eyre muses, then turns to Leonard. “You could see how you could play Hedda. You could cross-cast the productions, and it would be interesting…” He pauses, then looks at me with a smile. “But would the audience go insane?”
'Little Eyolf' runs until 9 January at the Almeida Theatre, London (almeida.co.uk)
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