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Review Round-up: Critics Question Adamson's Mrs

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Mrs Affleck, Samuel Adamson’s re-imagining of Ibsen’s 1895 Little Eyolf, opened on Tuesday (27 January 2009, previews from 20 January) at the NT Cottesloe, where it runs in rep until 29 April.

Adamson has relocated the action to 1950s England, where, after six weeks alone with her crippled little boy, Rita Affleck welcomes home her husband Alfred. But the arrival of Alfred’s half-sister ruins the craved-for passionate reunion.

Mrs Affleck reunites Adamson with director Marianne Elliott, with whom he had a 2005 NT hit with a new version of Ibsen’s Pillars of the Community. Claire Skinner takes the title role in a cast that also features Angus Wright (Alfred) Naomi Frederick and Josef Altin.

Almost all the overnight critics were united by their misgivings regarding the point of Adamson's updated version. “Why not simply revive Little Eyolf?” asked the Guardian's Michael Billington, echoing the sentiments of many of his colleagues. Despite this, Claire Skinner and Angus Wright drew praise for their portrayal of a marriage in crisis, and Marianne Elliot, although not matching the plaudits for recent NT hit War Horse, was applauded for the “fervent loyalty” apparent in her direction.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) – “Adamson and Elliott combined brilliantly on Ibsen’s Pillars of the Community four years ago, and you can only admire their courage and ingenuity in trying to discover a new way of expressing Ibsen’s symbolist extremism and gut-wrenching sexual truth-telling. The end result is far less affecting than the Ibsen play, especially the brilliant Adrian Noble production of it for the RSC in 1996. Adamson eschews Ibsen’s optimistic, redemptive conclusion, suggesting that there is no satisfactory answer to the bereaved parents’ cry of how to fill their days without their child. But the production lacks the fire in its heart to make this as moving and grotesque a finale as the play outrageously demands.”
  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (two stars) – “Plays are the product of a particular culture as well as an artistic temperament. It wouldn't make sense, for instance, to transplant Lorca's Blood Wedding to Budleigh Salterton. Equally, I see little point in doing what Samuel Adamson has done here: uproot Ibsen's 1890s symbolist drama, Little Eyolf, and set it down on the Kentish coast in 1955. The result is a misbegotten theatrical anachronism … Even if nothing in the play adds up, Marianne Elliott directs it with fervent loyalty on a large traverse stage skillfully designed by Bunny Christie. Claire Skinner suffers valiantly as Rita, overcoming the embarrassment of lines such as 'I have a uterus'; Angus Wright is the equally tormented Alfred.”
  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (two stars) – “Mrs Affleck reminds us how risky it is to attempt the wholesale rewriting and updating of a classic text. It is an outstanding example of the vanity of the interfering playwright who imagines he can cast fresh light upon a classic original by reconstituting it … Claire Skinner’s shrill, taut Rita, brims with sexual frustration and jealousy while busying herself in her smart, Formica-topped kitchen. Her sister-in-law (Naomi Frederick’s impressively intense school teacher) sits by the sea with Angus Wright’s superb Alfred after Eyolf’s death. They gaze at each other, both grief-struck and mutually enthralled. If only they had been in Ibsen not Adamson.”
  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (three stars) - “One wonders why Samuel Adamson has decided to update it at all, let alone transpose it to the Britain of 1955 in his new Mrs Affleck. If we can spot what’s still topical in Ghosts or A Doll’s House we can find bits of ourselves in a piece that offers as raw yet subtle a portrait of a troubled 19th-century marriage as you will find outside Strindberg … Angus Wright’s hitherto neglectful Alfred had meant to devote himself to the boy. Skinner’s Rita had made it clear that she wanted her husband for herself only. His death brings rancour and guilt to boiling point, giving us two fine performances, especially from a restless, defiant and now half-crazed Skinner. But is her riveting portrait of a trapped woman enough to justify Marianne Elliott’s strong, tense production? Of that I’m not so sure.”
  • Simon Edge in the Daily Express (four stars) - “In his free adaptation for the National, Samuel Adamson has found a location as depressing as the original Norwegian fjord setting: an off-season seaside town in Kent in the 1950s … Under Marianne Elliott’s atmospheric direction, the dark moods gather as ominously as the South Coast rain clouds. The emotional darkness is complemented by a touch of supernatural suggestion in Flea, Adamson’s suitably weird update of Ibsen’s spooky Rat-Wife. The use of hostile onlookers in the haunting café scene completes the sense of a menacing outside world crowding in on private grief. Purists may object to Adamson’s free rein but it’s a powerful re-working of this bleak indictment of parental egocentricity.”

    - by Theo Bosanquet

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