Returning to London after eighteen years, The National Theatre of Norway brings Little Eyolf by Henrik Ibsen to the Print Room at the Coronet. Presented in Norwegian with subtitles projected on the back of the stage, this is a production in realism with a capital R.
Grey wooden decking stretches across the stage, with only two benches of the same material and a futon to provide comfort. Whilst stark to begin with, in progression of the play, the few remnants of ease (pillows and the like) are removed, leaving the stage exposed to its bare structures. There is little sound or lighting design beyond the natural attempting to elevate the material – left mostly alone, the focus is entirely on the performers. Luckily, the acting is stellar.
Pia Tjelta delivers a haunting performance as the mourning mother Rita, tearing herself up for the role with exceptional honesty and complexity. Across from Kåre Conradi’s Alfred, capturing the insincere qualities of the character almost too convincingly, nearly colouring the acting itself. Though as the play builds, his performance is contextualised to assure that it is a choice, rather than a shortcoming.
Supported by Ine Jansen’s uneasy Asta and John Emil Jørgensrud’s earnest Borgheim, the truthfulness and intensity in Little Eyolf is captivating. The focus throughout is on bare emotion and the relationships of the characters, which the actors build deeply and thoughtfully. Overall, it is a heart-breaking spectacle, maintaining a tone of sorrow throughout.
With no attempt to interfere with the acting, the contrast to British theatre is refreshing, and a reminder that pure realism does have a place in the dramatic landscape of today. Even the foregoing of conventional structural tropes, such as a climax, further humanises the dramatic roles.
Watching the performance as a non-Norwegian speaker, there is a question as to whether the subtitles force a certain type of focus and engagement, relieving the performance of its task ever so slightly. It may be the case, however the result is submersion into the action on stage, which can only be a good thing.
Seeing the play with someone who did understand Norwegian, I was advised that the subtitles were not a direct translation, omitting certain phrases to provide the basic meaning, allowing the actor to expand upon that through their performance, regardless of language.
Absolute trust has been given to the cast, and in good reason. This performance rests and prevails on their shoulders. The attempt at modernisation is present if half-hearted, only visible through the costume. Rather, this production is timeless – a genuine attempt to simply present the lives of its characters.
Little Eyolf played Print Room at the Coronet until 21st April. For more information and tickets, see https://www.the-print-room.org/theatre/2018-season/littleeyolf/ .