Ibsen’s heart-breaking Little Eyolf is a tough call for actors and audience alike. But for Imogen Stubbs, who has recently gone public about her separation from Trevor Nunn, it must be strangely cathartic to play Rita Allmers, whose ten-year marriage has been undermined by weeks of separation and a husband’s obsessive work ethic.
The most extraordinary thing about this extraordinary 1894 play is that a child has wrecked the relationship between Rita and Alfred: little Eyolf fell off a table when they were making love, and the crippled nine-year-old, whom we see in the first act dressed as a toy soldier, hobbling on a crutch, is drawn to the deep by the Rat Wife.
This mythological hag, fearsomely intoned by Doreen Mantle, asks if there is “any troublesome thing that gnaws in this house.” Eyolf is “the living wall” that divides a marriage. But Eyolf is also Alfred’s half-sister, Asta, who loves him deeply and provides a wrenching emotional revelation late in the play.
Using the fine Michael Meyer translation from Adrian Noble’s 1996 RSC production, director Anthony Biggs doesn’t quite unleash the deep, sonorous discomfort of half-fulfilled lives in this tiny space, though Fabrice Serafino’s glossy blue design creates a sense of the outdoors, of fjords, skies and hilltops, even the fateful jetty.
So Stubbs goes for the quivering neurasthenic option from the very start, allowing her disturbed state of mind to harden into screeching sexual need and then recriminatory attack and quiescent sorrow, haunted by a pair of eyes wide open at the bottom of the sea.
It’s a full-on display I both admire and flinch at – I’m not mad about it -- but she’s superbly partnered by Jonathan Cullen’s punch bag Alfred, who makes his own journey from tragic realisation to optimistic compromise.
Asta and her hangdog road-building engineer, Borgheim, are nicely done by Nadine Lewington and Robin Pearce, leaving Stubbs and Cullen to play the magnificent last scene on a dying fall, with a glinting nod to the landscape and an extended hand of conciliation.
One just wonders what sort of social worker Stubbs’s impetuous, unstable Rita might turn out to be among the sinister riff raff who conspired with the Rat Woman down on the jetty. But life goes on. The steamboat leaves. And you really think that long term misery is in retreat because everyone’s learned a painful lesson or two.