The Theatreguide.London Review
The Pit Winter 2000 - 2001
One of the functions of a subsidised national theatre is to introduce audiences to unfamiliar plays, and the Royal Shakespeare Company has an admirable record of new British plays and significant European works.
This passionate drama by Italian Giovanni Verga is a welcome addition to the list, heavy going as it may be at times.
In a small farming village, widow Pina sets her eyes on farmhand Nanni. But he, oblivious to her passion, jokes that her daughter Mara is more his style. In a gesture of passionate sacrifice, she lets her daughter marry him, seduces him, and leaves. Some time later she returns, with tragic results.
The play presumes the existence of grace and damnation, and also of irresistible passions and compulsions that can overpower any reason or free will.
In short, it is very Catholic and Mediterranean at its core, and if the RSC has some difficulty capturing and sustaining the hothouse atmosphere, even with the aid of Italian director Simona Gonella, much is still achieved.
Hovering at the side of the stage or circling her prey like the title wolf, Brid Brennan conveys the madness of Pina's obsession, while Mali Harries develops impressively from the down-trodden daughter to the confident wife whose ownership of her husband makes it clear she is her mother's daughter.
If Declan Conlon doesn't quite convince us that one night with Pina has made him her lifelong slave, he does convey the despair of a man who feels that his life is completely out of his control.
To use the play's metaphor, when the two women are both onstage, he looks like a sheep watching wolves fight over who will eat him.
The play functions on an operatic level of intense passions, which requires a measured pacing to build up and sustain. A leisurely 15 minutes at the start establishes the village atmosphere, even before the principal characters are introduced.
And, to stress the unique depth of both women's passions, the author makes Nanni blind to them, so that Pina, for example has to hint, and hint, and repeat herself more and more explicitly until it finally dawns on him what she's getting at, just as Mara must later hammer her suspicions and jealousy into his head.
So, for all its power, the barely 90 minutes of the play's length sometimes feels a lot longer, and it takes some dedication to sustain the focus and concentration it demands. It's certainly worth it in the end, but the casual theatregoer could be forgiven for passing this one up for lighter fare.
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