There’s a moment in Sofia Jupither’s production of Little Eyolf where Pia Tjelta as Rita Allmer directly faces the audience and lets rip a primal howl deserved of a Greek tragedy. It was at exactly this moment, as the lights temporarily blacked out, that the thought ‘THIS IS SO GOOD’ flashed across my brain in a ticker-tape warning. THIS IS SO SO GOOD came the second synapse announcement (as though I needed to check with myself that I’d got it the first time). ‘OH GOD THIS IS SO GOOD’ I kept thinking, followed shortly after by, ‘Oh no. It’s going to end.’ And so I watched the rest of the play with a mixture of complete awe (at Jupither, at Ibsen, at Tjelta) and that specific sadness that comes from knowing the amazing thing you’re experiencing, right now, is inevitably going to finish. That however much I’d like to stay buried in the fjord mist howling at the pier, the doors would open and deposit me back out and into Notting Hill.
Ibsen’s Little Eyolf is permeated with regret for time not standing still. Alfred (Kåre Conradi) ruminates over memories of growing up with his sister, Asta (Ine Jansen). His imagining of their time together as Arcadian bliss invades his present relationship with his wife, driving them ever further apart. Rita, meanwhile, is suffocating in a fug of sexual frustration, the dried-up remnants of the love and passion Alfred and her used to share. The hurt comes from the change in attitude – not that Alfred never wanted to sleep with her, but that he once did and then stopped. And then there’s the other amorphous clump of regret: the child being born, the child falling from the table, the child dying.
Jupither’s production is performed in modern dress, in a wood-lined room that looks part-patio and part-sauna. The aesthetic however, is immaterial – it could be performed in anything from crinolines to ripped leather – because the point is that Jupither captures the integral Ibsen-ness of Ibsen. In this respect, there’s a poetry to the fact the production is what you might describe as ‘stripped back’, as the audience get something close to the essence of Ibsen, the rawest, unpolished heft of the playwright.
Aside from (if there can be an ‘aside from’) the deeply unpleasant symbolism at the end of Ivo van Hove’s recent Hedda Gabler, that staging suffered hugely from an apparent desire to keep everything (dialogue, relationships, emotion) within little buffeted zones. Everything was cold, dialled back, made paler like the soggy middle of a piece of bread with the crust ripped off. Jupither’s Ibsen is the opposite. When she strips Ibsen back, what remains is the most intensely human part of it. The howling, the anger, the desires and the nightmares.
And it’s a human-ness (sorry, but ‘humanity’ is just the wrong word) conveyed most acutely because of the fantastic performances of the cast. Both Tjelta and Jansen move constantly. As in, even when they are sitting in one place or standing on one spot, their bodies never once stop moving. They vibrate with the kind of energy CERN scientists spends their lives trying to understand, the way Hilde Cronje does in Yaël Farber’s Mies Julie. Jansen’s eyes flicker, flicker, flicker, like a garden bird, or like manic no-sleep intensity. The character’s unconscious mannerisms – the angularity of her fingers, the rubbing at her upper-arms – give away all the emotion Asta is working so hard to separate herself from. Tjelta’s Rita, in contrast, is entirely her own physicality. She needs her husband’s love to be expressed physically because she inhabits her own body so completely. When grief hits her, her posture crumbles inwards as if literally dented by the force. Even her hair has its own story as it collapses down from high to low ponytail before eventually tumbling out altogether.
The National Theatre of Norway is the ‘Home of Ibsen’ for obvious reasons. But the brilliance of this production transcends geographical and linguistic connections – I mean, it has to, because think of all the exceedingly bad Shakespeare English theatres churn out. It’s haunting timelessness comes from delivering with piercing accuracy the emotions and desires we’ve got no better at describing, or dealing with, since Ibsen was writing. Perhaps even more than with Nora Helmer or Hedda Gabler, Rita Allmer’s voicing of a great taboo – regret over becoming a mother – and her requirement for sex to be a part of her marriage, are both headspinningly, guttwistingly modern and continued proof that Ibsen wrote some of the best female characters in the history of theatre. Which is why, as Michael Billington says, we need to see far more of this company. Either that, or I might just move to Norway.
Little Eyolf was performed at the Print Room from 19 – 21 April 2018. Click here for more details.