Of the twelve great prose plays that Henrik Ibsen wrote between 1877 and 1899, perhaps the least-known and least-revived is Little Eyolf.* It's one of the last of Ibsen's plays and one of the structures you notice across his plays from The Pillars of the Community to When We Dead Awaken is the development of a ferocious realistic social criticism at the beginning, then an increasing interest in the symbolist, the metaphorical, the poetic (though without ever lapsing into poetic drama). While Pillars, A Doll's House, and Enemy of the People keep their symbols and metaphors pretty much under naturalist control, after that the images seem to overwhelm their purely materialist function. In Ghosts the metaphors and the social critique are in uneasy and fascinating tension. In The Wild Duck and Rosmersholm, characters kill themselves seemingly bidden to do so by the gravitational pull of the controlling metaphors in their lives. In The Lady from the Sea and The Master Builder, characters appear, possibly summoned by forces within the psyches of the protagonists. In Hedda Gabler and John Gabriel Borkman characters are led to their destruction by ideas themselves. Through all of the plays there is a slow movement upwards. While the early plays take place in the ground floors of solid bourgeois houses, The Wild Duck moves upwards into the attic of the Ekdal home; Solness in The Master Builder is lured to the top of the tower he has himself constructed; John Gabriel Borkman takes us from the ground floor to the first floor and then up a mountain, a move repeated by When We Dead Awaken.
Little Eyolf is right in the middle of these processes of metaphorisation and ascension. The story is, on the face of it, simple. Alfred has just returned from a writing retreat in the mountains. Rather than come back with a manuscript, however, he has come back with an idea: to help his disabled son Eyolf live a full and rich life of the mind. But Alfred's marriage with Rita is full of resentments and guilt: Eyolf is paralysed in one leg because of an accident when he was very young - as a baby he fell from a table unattended while his parents were having sex. Rita admits that sometimes she wishes he'd never been born. This confession finds a horrible echo when Eyolf drowns in the fjörd. Alfred and Rita tear their marriage apart in the aftermath. Towards the end, there is the very lightest of reconciliations as the two wonder if they might take in the orphan children from the edge of town and give them a better life.
This summary makes the play sound pretty naturalistic. And there are other elements of the play that place it squarely within that tradition. There is another character, Borgheim, an engineer, who has been building a road across the mountains and therefore stands for the fierce drive of nineteenth century progress and the march of modernity that drove so much naturalist confidence. Alfred's sister, Asta, is also in the play and, adding to Naturalism's fondness for tackling sexual taboos, we discover that she was adopted and not related, and a frisson of repressed incestuous desire between Alfred and Asta is allowed to ripple across the stage. Less sensationally, the relationship between Alfred and Rita, the tensions in a modern marriage, the way two people are capable of emotionally tearing each other apart and then finding reasons, desperate perhaps, unconvincing even, to stay together is just superbly observed. Troubled marriages were a staple of nineteenth-century theatre - so many French boulevard hits concern faithless husbands and wives - but Ibsen did something remarkable in deciding to take marriage seriously and expose it. And this play makes A Doll's House look rose-tinted.
But also, this is a play filled with poetic images, driven by them. Early in the play, the reunited family is visited by the Rat-Woman. If we're being really Naturalistic, I guess she's the town's pest control. Households with a rat problem hire her and her dog in to get rid of them. But her entrance is so evidently suggestive of something else that it's almost funny:
Begging pardon, but would the master and mistress be bothered by any things that bites and gnaws in the house? (p. 20)
Of course, it's the sexual guilt embodied in Eyolf's presence that bites and gnaws away at Alfred and Rita and it seems that she doesn't just lead rats away from a house, she can also lead problems. And because Eyolf and the guilt and mistrust between Alfred and Rita that he embodies is a problem in this marriage, she seems to be responsible for Eyolf being led to the shore, along the jetty and out into the deep sea water. But of course, not really. Or maybe really? In other words, the Rat-Woman is a character who seems to exist halfway between being in the diegetic fictional world and some non-diegetic metaphorical representation of psychological conflict (or even of primal cosmic forces that lead us to our doom). Which then also affects the death of Eyolf. Are we to take this death as real? Or is the whole play a sort of psychodrama that just externalises internal processes of desire, guilt and destruction. It would be easy to read the play as a kind of dream-like narativisation of Freud's 'primal scene' for example.
But it throws the play into confusion, because we are entitled to wonder how far the play is trying to evoke a real world at all. This play, more than any other, is poised precisely on the line between Naturalism and Symbolism. By these terms I mean something specific. Naturalism being a particular movement in theatre that begun being discussed and campaigned for in the mid-1860s. It favoured unblinking attention to real life, exposure of social taboos, fierce social criticism, looking to scientific materialism as the presiding impulse of the work. It finally emerged as a fully theatrical movement - and not merely a trend in dramatic literature - twenty years later. By that time, Naturalism was widely thought to have run its course and the smart money was on Symbolism, Naturalism's opposite, a wholly immaterial, mystical, metaphysical theatre that thought the everyday was an illusion that masked the higher mysteries of the cosmos.
If Naturalism in the theatre can be properly dated from 1887 with the foundation of the Théâtre Libre in Paris, Symbolism in the theatre can be dated from the founding of the Théâtre d'Art in 1890, a mere three years later. The battle was engaged in theatre - as well as in painting and the novel - because both were radically discontented with theatre but for very different reasons. The Naturalists found the theatre unsatisfactory because of its conventions, its fakery, its illusions, it audience that bayed for entertainment, diversion and unreality. The Symbolists found the theatre unsatisfactory because of its prosaic realness, its foursquare materialism, its earthbound ordinariness, and its audience that entered only sceptically into any evocation of the Beyond.
And versions of the contest between the two spread right across Europe from Spain to Russia. They are certainly felt in this play, which feels like a play that undecidedly partakes of both movements. It is both here and there, real and fable, exterior reality and subjective intensity.
This is why the play is so difficult to produce. Any decision about the staging has to mediate between two opposing theatrical languages. To you emphasise the symbolic or the real? These choices ripple out right across the play, informing acting, design, language, light, costume and more. France was slow to take to Ibsen. Early productions of his plays were greeted with contempt; he was considered disagreeably gloomy, too Northern European. But for France in the 1880s, still reeling from their loss in the Franco-Prussian War, anything severely Germanic would have seemed disagreeable to them. It was really when the Symbolists started doing Ibsen that Paris took him to their heart. Little Eyolf was first produced in France by the Théâtre de l'Oeuvre (a successor to the Théâtre d'Art, and a much more successful Symbolist company), less than four months after its world premiere, the shortest gap between world and French premieres of any of Ibsen's plays. The Théâtre de l'Oeuvre's production stressed the play's foreboding, dreamlike qualities, its intimations of the celestial and the mythological, certainly to the detriment of the play's naturalistic or realistic aspects. The company's director Aurélien Lugné-Poe, who was (in)famous for his otherworldly spiritual performances (Jules Lemaître famously described his onstage persona as 'the sleeping clergyman') and this tone of reverential reverie may have affected his performance, as contemporary critics admitted to finding the play completely baffling in its elusive evocation of dark psychic and natural forces.
Richard Eyre for at the Almeida has done the opposite. His is a play primarily of real people, real relationships, and real grief. In his introduction, he says this explicitly, refusing to fall for the idea that the Rat-Woman, for instance, is anything other than a real figure from rural life. And he is onto something. Naturalism survived; Symbolism came and went. The play's heart is in a couple's evisceration of each other in the aftermath of two deaths: of their child and their love for each other. Some of the mysterious intimations of the story fall a little flat now. The naturalism of the play is probably right to stress, although it risks leaving some of the play's complexity dangling.
And much of it works. Lydia Leonard is really terrific as Rita. Smouldering and sexy and frustrated and modern. I found Jolyon a little more mannered, though to be fair to him his character is an idealist philosopher whose ideas lift him fatally above human responsibilities, so making him very grounded would be tricky. There's a decent subplot, a slightly awkward flirtation between the engineer and the sister, which zips by effectively. Eyre has Eileen Walsh play the Rat Woman as a local eccentric, somewhere close to Maddie Rooney from Beckett's All That Fall, and her earthiness squashes any hint of the supernatural, probably to the benefit of the play.
It's the pace of the thing that is striking, for good and bad. Little Eyolf is one of Ibsen's shortest plays, but his model for this is the brilliant 90-minute version of Ghosts that he did in 2013. Ghosts is a simpler play and its metaphorical moments (the title among other things) are held fairly firmly in the service of the naturalism. As a result, this quick-paced version had all the power of a classical tragedy as the family is led to its horrific destruction. This version is even shorter, not much more than 80 minutes long. The idea I guess is to let the play sweep Eyolf to his death and then let the horror and bitterness tumble out in the aftermath. It removes any hint of self-indulgence from the play and the incomprehension of the play's first audience is banished here. It's crisp and clear.
For me it was just all a bit too quick. The production doesn't allow the horror of things sit long enough to really weigh on us. Eyolf's death comes so quick, he's hardly had a chance to live for us (despite a completely delightful performance by Adam Greaves-Neal, Tim Hibberd or Billy Marlow [not sure which of the three played Eyolf on my night]). Rita's rejection of Alfred's high-minded plans for Eyolf in scene 1 seemed remarkably hasty, even casual. And the couple fall apart and make their tentative plans to try again with, really, indecent haste. It's not helped by some rather emotionally tin-eared rendering of the dialogue. In the middle scene which takes place only 28 hours after Eyolf's death, Asta tells her brother 'you've got to stop brooding' (p. 46) which seems implausibly insensitive. And given that their son was drowned in the fjörd, the undertow sweeping him out to sea, would Rita really say without blushing, 'now I'm completely at sea. I'm lost' (p. 55)? Where the text for Ghosts was taut but undemonstrative, this version struggles to capture the intensities of the feelings that Eyre wants to place at its heart.
Tim Hatley's design is strong. The scene is enclosed in a wooden frame suggestive of a porch overlooking the fjörd, behind it a backdrop of mountain, the whole thing capturing a sense of confinement and sublime magnificence. But that's pulling us more towards the Symbolist notes of the play, as, indeed, are the (to me over-literal) video projections that show us water and - see above - the dead child. The costumes were intended, I suspect, to be neutrally in period and yet plausibly still modern, though, actually, I found them too period and so the thing felt distant from us. Peter Mumford's lighting captures a range of moods and tones that worked strongly for me.
This is my third Eyolf. The most haunting was an RSC production in 1997 with Robert Glenister and Joanne Pearce in the Swan, the open stage, the boards, the light offering simplicity in which the plays mystery could hang in the air. There was a bold attempt by Samuel Adamson to relocate the play to 1950s Britain in his Mrs Affleck at the Cottesloe in 2009, directed by Marianne Elliott with Claire Skinner and Angus Wright. And this is the third. None of them seem to me to quite have found how to do this difficult difficult play. What Eyre does let us do, though, is tear apart the play to find its bruised and bleeding heart.
* The exception is the last of those plays, When We Dead Awaken, which is the weirdest of them all and has a 'challenging' final stage direction that asks the director to conjure up an avalanche on stage. Mind you, Ibsen has form in this respect, since Brand also ends with an avalanche, though he didn't even mean that play to be stageable. After eleven highly stageable plays, Ibsen, at the end of his life, obviously wanted to piss directors off again.