Seldom performed, Ibsen’s 1894 play, Little Eyolf is a savagely moving piece that the play’s translator, Michael Meyer – one of the finest translators of Ibsen and Strindberg – considered Ibsen’s greatest.
After an epiphanic trip to the mountains, Alfred Allmers returns home with a new objective in life: to abandon his book, The Responsibility Of Man, in order to devote himself to his hitherto rather neglected nine-year-old son, Eyolf. Little Eyolf has his heart set on becoming a soldier but, after falling off a table as an infant and being rendered permanently disabled, he will never achieve his wish, and Alfred considers it his ‘highest duty’ to ‘bring him to self-fulfilment’.
No sooner has Alfred articulated his honourable intentions; tragedy strikes. Following a somewhat surreal visit from the Pied Piper-esque old Rat Wife, Eyolf follows her piping down to the jetty and drowns in the fjord, leaving his parents to the grief, the mutual recriminations and the already considerable guilt that has been a fixture in their home since Eyolf first sustained the injury that crippled him as a baby – not least because the accident happened when Alfred and his wife, Rita, left him unattended to, er, attend to each other. Thrown into the mix are Alfred’s questionable feelings towards his half-sister, Asta, and Rita’s sexual frustration and violent possessiveness of the husband who has grown cold to her charms now she is no longer as ‘consumingly beautiful’ as she once was.
This is all – to say the least – a bit grim, but that’s kind of par for the course. The play remains potent in its portrait of guilt and insightful in its depiction of transition: in love and life, through tragedy and loss and mourning. Imogen Stubbs gives an extraordinary performance as Rita. Radiating a desperate grief and an almost ravenous longing, she has a truly arresting stage presence; her performance is courageous, committed and thoroughly compelling in its feverish passion. Though perhaps too intense for the tiny space that is Jermyn Street Theatre, Stubbs’ dedication to these extremes of emotion is admirable, and as the production continues, the audience becomes accustomed to this larger-than-life character; Stubbs owns both the role and the stage, completely and gloriously.
Jonathan Cullen is sympathetic as her anguished husband and Nadine Lewington’s grace and composure as the reserved Asta provides a necessary contrast to Stubbs’ turbulent emotions and extravagant sensuality. Though a little over-long (the quieter, cheerless second act starts to drag towards the end), Anthony Biggs’ production makes its mark – primarily through Stubbs’ daringly flamboyant performance.