Nothing is ever certain to succeed in the theatre, though some plays and productions are certain to fail. But if you're consulting the form book, a production of an Ibsen play at the Almeida, directed by Richard Eyre, is as close as you will get to an odds-on favourite.
After winning a shelf full of trophies with Hedda Gabler in 2005 and Ghosts in 2013, Eyre has now breathed new life into the lesser-known Little Eyolf. It's a play that I have never seen before or read, so I can't pass judgment on how it has been adapted and what has been left out. But the result is startlingly modern, viscerally painful and theatrically effective.
A dead child lies at the centre of the play, but the drowning of Little Eyolf becomes a metaphor for a host of issues dividing Alfred Allmers and his wife Rita. A lesser playwright would have wallowed in the melodrama of the child's death, but Ibsen uses it just as a key to unlock a series of cupboards with skeletons inside. Guilt, revenge, possessiveness, the death of love and the absence of sexual desire are turning the Allmers' marriage into a nightmare even before Little Eyolf is swept out to sea.
The husband and wife are both flawed and selfish, but neither is all bad. Was Eyolf ever really loved by his parents? 'I wish he had never been born,' Rita blurts out while the child is still alive, but crippled by an accident. Ibsen's forensic examination of this failed couple is extraordinarily up to date, particularly in the way it explores the emotional bond between Alfred and his sister Asta. Jolyon Coy, Lydia Leonard and Eve Ponsonby are all excellent in the three main parts, and there is an outstanding cameo by Eileen Walsh as the mysterious rat-catcher woman who bursts into the Allmers' home in the opening scene. Sam Hazeldine is stuck with the less rewarding part of Borgheim, the happy road engineer who is unsuccessflly courting Asta.
Tim Hatley's design, using light-coloured Scandinavian wood, balances minimalist style with projected images of mountains and swirling water, so that the scenery is never far off. As always with Ibsen, the characters have plenty of backstory, but it never crowds out what is happening in the present. The themes of the play are complex -- the jealousies of parenthood, the closeness of siblings, and the collapse of secual desire, but they are brought to life and given dramatic texture by Eyre's intelligent direction. At times, I felt I was watching an unknown play by Harold Pinter or Edward Albee. For anyone who has not seen Little Eyolf before, and for the few who have, it's a revelation.