Thursday 5 February 2009

Standing up to Ibsen

Mrs Affleck, National Theatre (Cottesloe), London

Adaptations are always a confusing and questionable business. What should you keep and what should you discard? Will the words, the breaths, the pauses mean what they were originally supposed to mean for the author’s contemporaries? Will the audience gasp, laugh, turn their eyes away in the same way? It takes a great understanding of reception, and a great empathy with the text. Moreover, while adaptations of theatrical works for the cinema mean working with different rules and expectations, adaptations of theatrical texts into new theatrical texts must, one might say, add something incredibly significant to the original in order to be worthwhile. Otherwise, why not simply stage a very good production of the original version, only with newer costumes and furniture?

This is defnitely something you might ask yourself watching Samuel Adamson’s Mrs Affeck, an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s Little Eyolf, at the National Theatre. Ibsen set his play in the Norwegian fjords in the 1890s. Adamson brings us to the very English coast of Kent in the middle of the 1950s. Also, Adamson introduces slightly more explicit sexual references eating away at the precarious balance of the protagonist family (now the Afflecks, then the Allmers) - a frustrated heiress wife, her estranged ,and somewhat mentally fragile, man-of-letters husband, their crippled child, and the husband’s younger half-sister – and a slightly less negative ending. Mostly, the differences between the two versions end here.

One first of all wonders why the 1950s and not any other time. Marianne Elliot’s production and Bunny Christie’s design are very powerful and manage to master the atmosphere and colours of the time within the small space of the Cottesloe theatre, with just a few brilliant touches, but apart from the visual pleasure of it, the choice of the period is not obvious. It cannot simply be so the husband Alfred (the frightening, overpowering Angus Wright) can worry about the insanity of nuclear weapons, as that would have worked in many other periods. It could be, instead the need for a post-war atmosphere, for a representation of the English way of dealing with trauma - public mourning silenced and reflected into private mourning. Or it could be this, plus something else.

One of the most intriguing yet less developed characters of this play is, in Ibsen’s original, The Rat Wife, here transformed into a sort of teddy boy called Flea. The Rat Wife/Flea’s only significant speech is in the first act, and serves as an introduction to the disturbing, lugubrious development of the play; the character tells the story of how it saved the town, some years back, from an invasion of rats, by leading them all to the sea to drown - Flea attracts them with fire, The Rat Wife by playing on the pipes. The reference is, of course, to the Brothers Grimm’s story ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’, in which a rat-catcher plays his pipe to free the town from an invasion of rats by leading them all to drown into a river. When the town’s people refuse to pay him, though, the piper draws all the children away, never to be seen again. The Grimms adapted a medieval legend, and depending on the versions, the children either disappear or drown; occasionally, only one of them is saved: a lame child, who could not follow the piper fast enough. Our lame Little Eyolf/Olivier Affeck dies in the sea at the end of Act One, after The Rat Wife/Flea has been thrown out of the house by the parents.

Adamson uses the story perfectly, seeing the importance of making the Flea character plausible, yet only just: before the beginning of the war, England killed off many cats in an attempt to save on food. This resulted in a steep increase in the rat population, a problem that was not solved until after the war, and would thus be very much felt in the 1950s. And so there are some possible explanations for the choice of the English 1950s, even if most bloggers and critics seem to disagree.

Nonetheless, they might not be enough to turn this play into an exceptional adaptation. Nor is the beautiful set enough, nor is Claire Skinner’s brilliant interpretation as Rita Affeck enough. Ibsen’s exploration of a semi-incestuous relationship between the husband and his younger sister, Asta (who becomes Audrey in Adamson), is very much handy, because incest between siblings is one of the current fads in Anglophone theatre (as August: Osage County certainly proved). And, in fact, Adamson makes it way more explicit. But it is, again, not enough.

The evening falls into an anti-climax of long speeches and blaming games. Rita and Alfred’s fight over her jealousy for Olivier and her need for physical devotion contains the most awkward line of the season: ‘I have a uterus’ - and Samuel Adamson might beneft from reading some Rachel Cusk, as Ibsen surely understood a woman’s resentment for her own child better than he seems to do.

The final act offers several dramatic exits, none of which is taken: every single drop of recrimination must be drunk before we can go home. Rita quotes TS Eliot and Alfred quotes Shakespeare. And to fnish it all off, Flea reappears as a far less menacing, more daily presence, and it turns out that he had nothing to do with Olivier’s death - surely we didn’t need to be told in so many words?

This is not as bad and pointless an adaptation as most reviews made it out to be; and any negative appreciation must be understood within the generally high standard of London’s major stages. It is obvious that there is much devoted research behind the choice of this period, and behind its recreation. But Adamson’s desire to prove himself, to stand up to Ibsen, is the one wrong step that generates most of the production’s flaws.

Till 29 April 2009


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