CW: mental health, suicide

Little Eyolf not only follows on from Oxford Playhouse’s production of Lucy Kirkwood’s Hedda, but is also simultaneous with Robert Icke’s adaptation of The Wild Duck (currently at the Almeida). It seems that Ibsen revivals are having a bit of a moment, and there are some big shoes to fill. mealspiel’s production, however, is a ‘new play after Ibsen’, and is a refreshingly loose adaptation of its original. It is brutally self-aware and self-deprecating (much befitting its use of the stand-up comedy format), and very endearing for it. With only a sketchy loyalty to its source text, the production was able to find its own personality and identity: one that was much more exciting and innovative than any student Ibsen I’ve seen before.

The actors all did their characters justice, but shone in the more metatheatrical parts of the piece. These largely reflected on Ibsen’s text: its background, its inconsistencies, and the alterations that had been made for this production. The actors’ use of a microphone as a means to break character and address the audience was quite reminiscent (and perhaps influenced?) by Robert Icke’s production, but its effect was more varied here: the microphone was used for a range of surreal sequences that resembled a TED talk, a guided meditation and a detective solving a mystery.

The cast gelled well as an ensemble, but special mention should go to Abby McCann for her handling of a range of tones and some difficult material, and to Ben Millard for slipping in and out of character at lightning pace and yet with ease. All could perhaps relax into their roles slightly more and take their time, particularly as their strong ability and the quality of the material affords it. The stylistic decisions were, on the whole, subtle but effective. The set was minimal and functional, but the aesthetic colour-coordination of costume and carpet showed the thought that had gone into its design. Similarly, the soundtrack was upbeat and inoffensive, but noticeably featured artists that have spoken out about mental health. This was a nice touch.

The dramatic climax of the play, however, left me feeling some discomfort. The blurring of lines between the real actors and Ibsen’s characters had been a source of humour throughout, but here my inability to distinguish what was true or not was unsettling. It was the production’s success in building a trusting relationship between actors and audience that made this breaking of the fourth wall feel a bit emotionally insensitive. That said, Amitai Landau-Pope’s writing was very mindful of its weighty topic of suicide. It moved the emphasis from the act as an theatrical device, as it so often is in classical drama, to the expression of a personal experience that was moving in its mundanity and honesty.

Little Eyolf is unpredictable, ambitious and at times ridiculous. If we are to keep reviving classical texts, this is how they should be resurrected: for our times, for real audiences and, ideally, in a tight 90 minute slot at the Burton Taylor Studio.