Ibsen 2.0? Late 19th-century Norwegian angst improved and updated for contemporary sensibilities? It's a tall order, but the Melbourne-based Hayloft Project's bold experimentation with Henrik Ibsen's late-career Little Eyolf is a shocking success. Not everyone will appreciate the bleak result – even the relatively upbeat final note has been toned down – but many in the audience will be more deeply moved than they would have been by the 1894 early masterpiece of modernism. The language and actions that director Simon Stone and his cowriter Thomas Henning and the contributing cast have been able to give the grieving, feuding couple is more brutal and explicit than what even the scandalous Ibsen could get away with in an era of Victorian prudery. The marital conflict between Alfred and Rita becomes reminiscent of George and Martha's in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (in which Stone played the new professor, Nick, at the Belvoir in 2007) or Albee's recent The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?, or even Pinter's The Homecoming. Indeed, the whole exercise is a reminder that our concept of significant drama owes so much to Ibsen.
This is no translation, nor even an adaptation: only the key plot points and character attributes are kept, but the spirit, intent and ruthless scrutiny of the father of modern theatre survive. Here we never see the crippled boy nor even hear of his abductress, the Pied-Piper-like Rat-Wife (a local villain of Ibsen's home town Skien): we begin with Eyolf's disappearance from school. Gone is the living room with its view of the fjord; all action takes place in a bathroom. And what a bathroom: flawless white cast-iron clawfoot tub, Scandinavian wood floor, a tall waterfall shower precisely lit by Teegan Lee – everything on stage carries a beauty born of perfectly considered proportion: designer Claude Marcos makes virtues of the necessities of a low budget and a small space.
In this bathroom the characters are progressively stripped naked and redressed, psychologically and physically. Alfred wanted to be a good father but was too busy with work – or was that just an excuse? And was replying to his son's dream of becoming a viking with "that's not a viable occupation" practical advice (especially considering his son's lame leg) or emotional cruelty? Tom Wren's deep voice conveys Alfred's turmoil, even when the line is simply long, grieving groans. Rita is an imperfect mother; if Shelly Lauman seems a little hesitant at first, holding her mobile phone in the hope of news from the emergency services, just wait for her bellowing tirade of recrimination and abuse after Eyolf is found dead. The two supporting actors make their quirky characters real: against the flood of gloom, Gareth Davies pulls off a fine comic role as the dorky road engineer Henrik (originally Borghejm), in love with Alfred's vacillating half-sister Asta (Anne-Louise Sarks).
Even those who find that the collaborative process of "devised theatre" too often results in episodic, unsatisfying plots will be struck by the intensity and unity of this group search for the core of Ibsen's tragedy. Bring on Version 3.1. Jason Catlett