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The Theatreguide.London Review

Little Eyolf
Jermyn Street Theatre   Spring 2011

One of Ibsen's least-performed plays - its last London appearance, at the National Theatre two years ago, was in a radically rewritten and anglicised adaptation - displays all its difficulties in this generally unsuccessful small-scale production.

A married woman is so insecure that she is insanely jealous of her husband's dedication to their crippled son. When the boy dies, both have to re-evaluate their relationship, their feelings for each other and their individual sense of their place in a confusing universe.

Ibsen explores much of this through the characters' painful self-examination and discussion of their thoughts and feelings. But, lacking Shaw's ability or inclination to make intellectual debate theatrically exciting for its own sake, Ibsen depends on our empathising with the characters enough to care about their problems.

And that is where this production falls apart. Through a string of director's and actors' errors, we are kept from feeling the pity or concern for the characters that would make their struggles to sort out their thoughts matter to us.

The Jermyn Street Theatre is a tiny space, and one of director Anthony Biggs' first errors is to encourage or allow Imogen Stubbs as the wife to play much too big for the room.

By projecting her voice and scaling her actions as if she were in a much larger theatre, she never seems to be inhabiting the same reality as the generally underplaying other actors.

Worse, her broad playing leaves the actress little space for subtleties or emotional transitions, so that her character seems repeatedly to leap without warning from one sort of hysteria to another.

As a result, the woman comes across as so barking mad from the start that we can never empathise with her, while the adventure of Jonathan Cullen's husband becomes not just coping with his child's death and the self-doubting aftermath, but having to live with this decidedly unpleasant shrew.

(I hasten to note that Imogen Stubbs is a talented actress capable of subtlety and delicate touches. If she has made some unwise choices in this performance, the blame must be shared with director Biggs for not guiding her away from them.)

There are other problems in Ibsen's text that the director and actors haven't found a way to master. Though Jonathan Cullen does generate some sympathy for the husband (even if, as I noted, the wrong kind), without anyone to bounce off in the long discussion scenes, his self-exploration begins to feel like annoying self-absorption.

A subplot involving the husband's half-sister and her not-exactly-sisterly feelings for him seems to belong to some other play despite the quietly sensitive playing of Nadine Lewington, and the abrupt insertion of a quasi-supernatural character only lures Doreen Mantle into a kind of overacting her director should have helped her avoid.

At its best, Little Eyolf is a difficult text that challenges any director and actors to find their way through its minefield. In this case they haven't.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Little Eyolf - Jermyn Street Theatre 2011


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