Little Eyolf — not quite Ibsen realism

Seeing the first night of the mostly conventional Little Eyolf at the Owlspot in Ikebukuro drew an interesting parallel with the version of the same play adapted to 1950s England by Samuel Adamson and recently opening (to mixed reviews) at London’s Royal National Theatre. This production in Japan comes ahead of a version of John Gabriel Borkmann next year at the Setagaya Public Theatre and one of Hedda Gabler this coming July. Realism is popular at the moment. (Even the next thing on at the Owlspot is Uncle Vanya!)

I actually had director Kurou Tanino, swapping his usual psychological and grotesque style for classical European text-based theatre, sitting next to me and making notes throughout the performance. It was also my first time to the Owlspot, a nice new venue, with great sightlines and intimacy. However, it is inside a tall building and access is via these two elevators. There is a horrendous scrum to get up to the second floor theatre reception, meaning that patrons are already irritated and befuddled before they have entered the actual auditorium. Luckily the seats are wide and comfortable, a luxury in London theatres.

After an unnecessarily fussy start where the lights came up on an actor posing on a bench and then down again to allow stage hands to bring on furniture inexplicably not there from the start, the production settled into a tight form. Played without interval, it made the customarily broken-up structure of a three-act piece relatively fast-paced, though this must also be thanks to the direction and acting.

The story is full of typical Ibsenian themes: bourgeois marriage, secrecy, guilt, freedom. Alfred and his wife Rita lose their son Eyolf in a tragic accident, exposing the emptiness of their domestic situation. They have to decide whether to soldier on, painfully, or whether to break and seek individual existences. There is a strange mystical element unusual to his work, a ‘Rat Woman’, here played by a dwarf actress, who is a kind of Pied Piper of Hamlin figure — a symbolic device, unexpected in its obviousness, but then Ibsen’s symbolism was always rather clumsy. Kurou Tanino’s production, with its bare wooden stage and furniture consisting merely of numerous benches, is also essentially non-realist. (Anyone who is familiar with Tanino will know that, despite his occasional Ibsen productions, he is anything but a realist.)

There were changes to the original, not least the clarity and freshness of the translation itself, but also the constant backdrop — large arches, which culiminated neatly in the final act being played ostensibly in a church. The final act does not involve a flag, as Ibsen’s text, but candles. These touches of expressionism (light = hope etc), though a little clunky for actors’ entrances (requiring them to knock on imaginary doors) creates a landscape naked and stark, and highly Scandinavian.

The lead role is played by Masanobu Katsumura, a key Ninagawa actor, a Japanese Antony Sher. He prowls the stage like an animal, alive and energetic. He has a wonderfully emotional face but his body also tells you everything. His Alfred is a lean creation, full of sudden mood swings. He clamours with the female characters, with physicality sexual and clingy. Even the act of crawling up on a bench is fused with meaning. The production is worth seeing just for his towering performance.

The director was interviewed here by Nobuko Tanaka and talks about his earlier fringe work. For those interested in this in April he is reviving one of his more avant-garde works Ira ira suru otona no ehon with his company Niwa Gekidan Penino.

Little Eyolf

February 4-15, at Owlspot Theater

Uncle Vanya

February 19-March 1, at Owlspot Theater

Hedda Gabler

July, at Akasaka Red Theater

Ira ira suru otona no ehon

April 8-20, at Hakobune


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