Friday, 13 February 2009


12/2/09, Cottesloe

2hrs 25 mins. The critics were very rude about this. Unfairly. We thought it was a powerful piece of theatre with some cracking performances.

Ibsen's Little Eyolf updated (with many contemporary references) to the 1950s. A traverse production: the garden of a house with a posh kitchen (with massive fridge) at one end in Act 1; an outdoor seaside cafe and then the beach in Act 2. I liked the occasional arrangements of pebbles on the floor, which play a part from time to time in the action: a small boy throwing stones near the beginning; the leading character filling her pockets with them in anticipation of a suicide bid towards the end. A fine mist of rain fell at one point.

Rich Rita (Claire Skinner: bored, blonde, brittle in a collection of very elegant 50s numbers) has married penniless poet Alfred (Angus Wright, gawky and cadaverous as ever, the very picture of a buttoned-up literary Englishman); years ago they couldn't keep their hands off one another, so much so, it transpires, that the baby fell off a table while they were at it and was crippled for life. Oliver is now nine; dressed up in a cowboy outfit which leads his mother heartlessly, when she's not reading Lucky Jim, to call him Hopalong. There's also Alfred's half-sister, a teacher in Margate, with whom he has a semi-incestuous relationship ("semi" in the sense of "apparently unconsummated", not in the sense of "half" sister); the decent but commonplace engineer who'd like to marry her; and a strange rather feral teddy boy who makes an unsettling appearance in the first act and an even briefer appearance at the end.

Act 1 closes with news of Olly's disappearance and drowning after his parents have had a flaming and noisy row.

By the interval I'd decided that with her withering wit and hectoring manner she was monstrous, inhuman, uncaring, profoundly unsympathetic. In a nice touch she consigned a bunch of flowers brought by her sister-in-law to the blender. Him I rather liked. The ladies patiently put me right, pointing out that the strain of living with a disabled child would get to anyone, especially when you blame yourself for his condition and that his father ("typical man") had been running away from his reponsibilities: at the start of the play he has just returned shining-eyed from his latest six week trip to the Scottish Highlands, where he's supposed to be writing a great book about the threat of nuclear annihilation. He has abandoned the project he tells his wife (who calls him Casaubon), and has decided to devote himself to being a "proper father" to Olly.

In the second act the parents grieve (indeed, she virtually goes mad) and brother and sister chum up together. When sis finds an old letter written by her mother to their father which reveals that she is not in fact his daughter (and so they are not in fact siblings) you assume they'll walk off into the Kent sea mist together. They don't, and I'm not sure why.

The weakest part of the play, indeed, was the ending. Plot, situation and characters are all recognisably Ibsen, and the development was thoroughly satisfying up to the point where Rita and Alfred realise that Olly has probably drowned himself (in the hopes of making his parents happy, perhaps?). Their lives have been laid waste, thanks partly to their own errors, partly perhaps to the errors of an earlier generation. Unfortunately, dear old Ibsen tries for something a little more upbeat: a stab at redemption, in the form of some vaguely spiritual uplift which seems to include a commitment to good works, if not to a continuing, functioning marriage.

The critics presumably objected to all this late 19th century Nordic gloom transported to the altogether more prosaic surroundings of Kent in the 1950s. I can't say it worried me. Suburban tedium, the narrowness of middle class lives, the appalling spectre of nuclear war... surely those are sufficient to justify more than a little gloom.

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