Ibsen's late play, ‘Little Eyolf’ sits alongside ‘A Doll's House’ and ‘The Master Builder’. It picks more daring middle-class targets than either in its examination of corrosive sexual guilt within a marriage, the occlusion of mothers by their children and even a troubling hint of incest in the egoism à deux between man of inaction Alfred and his sister Asta.
There’s a clue in this uneven production as to why this play has not achieved quite the same canonical status. There must be a balance between the three main characters: there is no Nora in the piece.
As desperate wife, Rita, Imogen Stubbs compromises these subtleties. The idiomatic translation by Michael Meyer is excellent, teasing out the play’s humour, but Stubbs seems intent upon trying to make Rita both epic and contemporary – one minute thrashing about like Electra, the next croaking like a strung-out Joan Greenwood discovering something she disapproves of on Mumsnet.
The pantomime quality of the first half doesn’t help, with the titular crippled infant in a campy boy piper outfit and the folkloric Rat Wife (ably rendered by theatreland stalwart Doreen Mantle) doing a bit of business with a stuffed dog in a sack.
The second half is miles better: the ensemble pulls together and even the odd, glossy Prussian blue set – standing, presumably, for fjord, sky and louring Norwegian gloom – shivers into life. Hopefully Stubbs will tone it down a bit, as ‘Little Eyolf’ clearly merits its rare outing.