Little Eyolf

Ibsen’s 1894 drama Little Eyolf still has the ability to shock in its study of a couple with a guilty secret, writes Laurance Green.

Jolyon Coy in Little Eyolf

A forensic examination of a marriage explosively falling apart is provided by Henrik Ibsen in his short play Little Eyolf, revived in an intense and moving new production, adapted and directed by Richard Eyre at the Almeida Theatre in Islington, London.

Alfred Allmers has been neglecting his wife Rita and disabled nine-year-old son Eyolf in order to write a book about "the responsibility of being human." After a restorative spell away, he has decided to abandon the book in order to be a better father and spend more time with his son. However, his new-found interest in the boy sparks of a crisis for his wife Rita. The child to her is a source of pain and torment; she is jealous of him, of the space he takes up in her relationship with her husband, and in a stunning outburst of inhumanity, wishes aloud the Eyolf had never been born. But real tragedy swiftly follows when news comes that the boy has drowned.

Although written in 1894, this drama still shocks in its study of a couple with a guilty secret and the way their mutual blame and poor choices have catastrophic consequences. The essential paradox at the heart of the play is how the conflict between conjugal needs, individual desires and parental duties can result in a failed marriage – "Our love has been like a bonfire, it has burnt itself out" – and how a shared trauma can cause a lifeless relationship to be reborn.

It is in fact a drama fuelled by pain, regret and recrimination. The appalling irony for the couple here is that they recognise Eyolf's humanity in death where they had ignored it in life. What remains of their son is hope – merely a glimmer of it – the hope that they will start to acknowledge their shared humanity with the dispossessed and that their stoicism will soften into something like love.

Tim Hatley's convincing Norwegian sunrise (lighting by Peter Mumford), low cloudscapes on the mountains and deep waters of the fjord provide an atmospheric backdrop.

Director Richard Eyre elicits excellent performances from Lydia Leonard, who plausibly conveys the raged, fierce sex drive and vulnerability of the unhappily married Rita, and Jolyon Coy as the pale, idealistic Alfred, while Tom Hibberd (one of three young actors in the role) is most touching as Eyolf, the child caught in the middle. Strong support is provided by Eve Ponsonby as Alfred's supposed half-sister, Sam Hazeldine as an over-confident engineer and family friend and Eileen Walsh as an Irish Rat Woman, a pied piper of Norway who lures unwanted rodents to their watery death with the aid of her pan pipes and a little dog.

This indeed is a production which remains firmly fixed in the mind long after the final curtain.


Little Eyolf

 Runs at the Almeida Theatre until Saturday 9 January 2016.

Box office: 020 7359 4404

Last modified: April 7, 2021

Written by 4:58 pm Theatre