Little Eyolf review – modern and experimental but lacking depth

An experimental and bold play held back by limited character development

Little Eyolf has many extraordinary virtues. It is a production that is not afraid to take an old text and play with it, disrupting structures and meanings in a joyful, sharp experimentalism. It has the mark of a strong director, who is fearless in making bold choices on the stage. It mixes theatrical dialogue with rhythmical, musical scenes, which sometimes feel like a fun TV sequence. A part of the opening of the play especially feels like a delightful intro to a TV show, with music and cut sequences and all. It’s brilliant in the way it draws on the language of different mediums, and original in its use of visual media in the projections.

Walking into the theatre, we see a Leon bag leaning against a simple and effective set. This bag – or rather, the episodes attached to a Leon cookbook and some Leon meatless meatballs – function as a manifesto for the play’s experimental choices. It also sets a tone: modern, light-hearted, realistic, absurd.

In short, the play rewrites Ibsen’s Little Eyolf to place it in contemporary London. But the story is continuously stopped, and the actors comment on it as themselves, bringing in elements of their everyday lives as students, and of their experience putting together the play. This structure allows all points of the play to be dissected and analysed, delving into the motivations of the characters’ actions and the details of their lives.

However, what makes this play ultimately unconvincing is the utter lack of depth of all the characters. They are all white, middle-class tropes: even when well-developed, they wouldn’t be the most interesting of characters, but being as flat and stereotypical as they are, they make it almost impossible to feel any emotional investment in the play. This is through no fault of the actors: they do an amazing job of holding up their parts, switching tones and characters effortlessly, but there is only so much depth you can inject into an evil stepmother caricature.

The most jarring of these one-dimensional characters is Eyolf himself. Unfortunately, he struck me as nothing but an ableist stereotype. There is no exploration of any of the ways his disability affects him as as an individual, as opposed to it being a kind of all-encompassing, misery-creating, character-defining, self-explanatory feature. It is posed as a tragedy that is making it impossible for him to experience anything in life (though the audience only understands that he has a limping leg – we never know why it affects him in this way). Hiring a physically disabled actor would probably have helped steer it away from such a flattening ableism, but unfortunately the BT Studio is not easily accessible, so that might have been difficult from a practical standpoint.

I understand that the point might have been that everyone around him views Eyolf as nothing but his disability, but the play as a whole treats him like that, as well. It goes as far as to claim that his disability (again: a non-functional leg, as far as the audience knows) dampens down all of his senses, never explaining why that would do so for him specifically. There is a scene which aims at exploring the intricacies of how he feels during the various conversations with his family, but it does not quite delve deep enough. I want to know more about Eyolf; I want him to be more.

Moreover, one of the problems of having an all-white cast (yet again, in Oxford) is the absolute lack of tact in bringing up a section of ‘mindfulness’. The actors lead the audience in an entire mindfulness exercise (the point of which is unclear to me, though it was pleasant), but it is presented as somewhat of a joke. Mindfulness practices however are drawn from Buddhist scripture originally: it is many people’s religion. The writers make no effort at acknowledging that, or at somehow turning it into a mockery of a certain, bland, toned-down version of mindfulness. This section brings up another problem with the play: many of the sections outside of the narrative don’t have a clear purpose. The absurdity of them is often enjoyable, and many are pulled off through a brilliant grasp of dramatic rhythm, humour and visuals, but I still do not understand what unethical data collection has to say about mental health.

The attempt to particularise the actors’ narrative to Oxford University also results in little more than mediocre JCR banter, missing a chance to use it as a thread of familiarity through which to communicate emotionally. This is a minor issue in the general lack of successful build up of emotion, which is mostly caused by flimsy character development.

Having said all this, I must emphasise that Little Eyolf still deserves a lot of credit. The flaws it has are most likely a product of the short time frame one has to put together a play during an Oxford term, which makes dealing with such a complex and daring concept difficult. I am sure that with further development and thought, it could become incredibly good. The set design is excellent, and it is also an ode to beautiful costume design: all the actors but one have matching red socks, and the one who doesn’t has a red dress, a detail which I found delightful. It is trying to do much more than a standard student production does, the actors have talent, and the director clearly has strong vision as well as a great eye for stage aesthetics and rhythms. Mielspiel can definitely go places.

Little Eyolf