SUNRISE TO STARLIGHT, A NORTHERN TRAGEDY
Under a bleak black mountain panorama, this is a shattering play about selfishness, mismatched love, and how grief and guilt can make you monstrously cruel unless it redeems you. It is not Henrik Ibsen’s best-known (though Antony Biggs at the Jermyn did a fine revival a few years back with Imogen Stubbs). But Richard Eyre, following his Hedda Gabler and a still-haunting adaptation of GHOSTS, brings the same deep sorrowing intelligence to bear in adapting and directing this.
He runs it (as before) straight through in eighty fine-balanced, emotionally gripping minutes. The same design team: Tim Hatley, with Peter Mumford’s vitally important lighting design, take a spare white stage from an opening sunrise beyond the peaks to the final starlit hope. Ibsen was an old man when he wrote it, well versed in its themes: inadequate marital love, the “law of change” which makes all things crumble and re-form, and the terrifying emotional vacuum of fin-de-siecle atheism. But here his catalyst is rawer and deeper: an innocent death.
Geeky writer Alfred (Jolyn Coy) has never quite meshed with his wife Rita (Lydia Leonard) ,a blazingly sexual, unsatisfied ball of need. He is still babyishly close to his half-sister Asta (Eve Ponsonby, touchingly conflicted beneath a sensible exterior). Rita resents her, and Asta herself finds it difficult to surrender to an adult love of Borgheim (Sam Hazeldine). As a practical road-building engineer the latter is the only sane and happy one – “the world is wonderful!” to him and he wants to share it.
Rita’s is desperate for Alfred’s embraces: needy, prowling in a thin wrapper, at one point she opens it to him hurling her desire like weapon, while with superb tiresomeness he chunters of packing up writing his vapid philosophy book about the nature of human responsibility and devoting his life to education their small lame son Eyolf, who alone can “Fill his life with purpose”. She, with shocking openness, cries that she wishes Eyolf had never been born, because she can’t share Alfred. “I want to be everything!”
He backs away from her advances. Coy and Leonard make this properly excruciating. “We had a love that wrapped us in flames!” she cries, and he “I wasn’t wrapped in flames”. We learn that he married partly for her money, to give his orphan half-sister security; later, that the child is only crippled because he fell off a table as a baby while they were making love.
Into this tangle of discontent falls a real thunderbolt, after a very unsettling visit from the Ratwoman : Eileen Walsh a horribly matter-of-fact Irish crone, the travelling pied-piper whose art is to lure to their drowning the “squeakers and rattikins, crawlers and creepers that scamper and plop into the milk-pails” . She gleefully says “Bite the bitter apple, little master!” as she leaves. And while the adults variously vent their anger and delusional ideas, Eyolf drowns in the fjord, watching her row away.
The rest is grief, a working-out of horror and cruel accusations, and realization that the cruellest thing of all when a child dies is that banal, whats-for-dinner life will go on. “We are stuck on this earth, both of us”. For all his bleakness Ibsen does usually offer a glimmer of dawn, and here Eyre and his cast serve it with delicate, unemphatic precision. Rita is the one who finally sees that even in the last horror, life may, if you can look outward, still be conducted with “something a little like love”. No flames, but a dim, flickering starlight hope.
box office 0207 359 4404 to 9 Jan
box office 0207 359 4404 to