The Other Place, Stratford-upon-Avon
Opened 4 July, 2000

When David Lan's version of Giovanni Verga's La Lupa was first staged in Glasgow some five years ago (under its English title, The She Wolf), I remarked that the second act contained a struggle "of Lorca-esque intensity" between predatory widow Pina (the wolf of the title) and her daughter Mara for the affections of Nanni Lasca, first wooed by Pina then bitterly bestowed by her upon her daughter. In Simona Gonella's production for the RSC at Stratford's The Other Place, it is much more difficult to invoke the Spanish poet. Here the whole atmosphere is palpably southern Italian: an air of "work hard, play hard, worship hard" permeates the proceedings. The first is only indicated by Nicky Gillibrand and David Fielding's setting, in which a pure white threshing floor is strewn with hay bales, ladders, sickles and surrounded by lofts and alcoves into which the farm workers disappear; however, it is plain that the capering, brawling and proverb-sparring which occupy much of the first half-hour are a way of winding down after a long day in the fields.

This first movement is beautiful to behold: it has virtually no narrative relevance, but potently establishes the community in which the subsequent events take place. The cast of ten (whose very accents come from all across these islands, suggesting a kind of all-purpose regionality) economically delineate individual identities for themselves whilst at the same time knitting together impressively as an ensemble, as moods swing from joke to threat and back again within a handful of lines. However, when the triangular relationship at the play's core assumes centre stage, this community is pushed briskly into the background, to return only in dribs and drabs in the second act, upon Pina's return several years later to a village preparing for its Easter procession. It is a beautiful opportunity squandered when Verga adapted his own short story for the stage.

The author's style of early verismo, or dramatic realism, is also a mixed blessing. Whilst it allows vernacular and metaphor to mix headily in the general scenes, the words he puts into Pina's mouth are almost entirely grand sentiments of intense feeling. Bríd Brennan plays Pina's swagger well – the assurance of a woman not conventionally beautiful but aware of her allure; however, when Pina's range narrows so that she is doing nothing but emoting, Brennan has little left to work with.

The most dangerous effect of this shift from assurance to defiance is that Pina is no longer the centre of the story; it ceases to be about her return to try to reclaim Nanni, and becomes about Nanni's attempts to resist. Declan Conlon's Nanni becomes a man who, with the best will in the world, is too self-absorbed to do consistently well by anyone else: first daring to take Pina's self-lacerating offer of her daughter at face value, later protesting about the conflict which drowns out the village band, "It's them. It's not me. It's these women!" Mali Harries' Mara attempts to play her mother at her own game, but is no match. Ultimately, though, such opportunities for increased depth and complexity cannot be created from nothing, and they are not in Verga's original. Apparently it received only a so-so-response upon its premiere in 1896; one can, disappointingly, see why.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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