Little Eyolf (Theatre Works) – theatre review

Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s Little Eyolf (1894) is a searing portrait of angst. Rita (Elisa Armstrong) is deeply in love with Alfred (Damien Harrison). He’s a writer and they have been married for a decade, but she fears his feelings for her have shifted. He’s just returned from a fortnight walking in the mountains, a trip he has taken to clear his head. It was meant to be a writing expedition, but he didn’t write a word. Now he declares he will give up writing altogether to care for their disabled son, Eyolf (Zac Steedman). That was the epiphany he had while he was away.

Photos by Jack Dixon-Gunn

He’s never shown such interest in Eyolf before. In fact, he buried himself in his work. Now he wants Eyolf to realise his full potential, whatever that might be. An accident when Eyolf was a baby resulted in him only being able to walk with the aid of a crutch and carrying a significant and permanent limp. In her possessiveness, Rita resents the fact that Eyolf has seemingly gotten between Alfred and her. More than that, she appears jealous of the hold that Alfred’s half-sister Asta (Liliana Dalton) has on him.

For his part, he finds it far easier to talk with Asta than with Rita. Asta has an enduring love for Alfred and he for her and their relationship borders on the forbidden. Engineer Mr Borgheim (Alexander Tomisich) has been staying with Alfred and Rita. He clearly has his sights on Asta, but although she has feelings for him, she can’t or won’t give herself wholeheartedly to him because of her commitment to Alfred. A scary woman known as the Rat Wife (Ioanna Gagani) prowls the neighbourhood collecting, enchanting and drowning rats. One day she visits and engages Eyolf in conversation. Not long after tragedy strikes.

Little Eyolf is a production for those who appreciate intensity and subtext. There is a lot going on in this dysfunctional family where relationships are fraught. Pure and utter happiness seem illusive. The play concerns itself with obligation and commitment. Alfred’s mental health appears tentative at best. He is a bundle of contradictions. While the story certainly drew me in, I felt the acting was more stilted than I would have liked. In my mind, a more natural delivery style would have made the material more readily relatable and accessible to a modern audience. It felt like the director Robert Johnson took a 19th century timeframe and tried to transplant it into the here and now, but didn’t quite succeed.

The staging sees a small, blow-up, plastic swimming pool in the foreground, a wooden deck chair and a Christmas tree. The set and costume designer is Bridie Turner. Little Eyolf delivers guilt in spades and while I found the material compelling, I was less sold on its execution. It is playing at Theatre Works’ Explosives Factory until 10th December, 2022.

Alex First

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