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A CurtainUp London  Review
La Lupa

By Lizzie Loveridge

The Sicilians of today are supposed to be the nearest thing to the classic Greeks left to us: that is they are the nearest descendants on earth. In Greece today there are no Greeks. The nearest thing is a Sicilian. . . He has the energy, the quickness, the vividness of the Greek, the same vivid passion for wealth, the same ambition, the same lack of scruples, the same queer openness, without ever really openly committing himself.  
-- Giovanni Verga in an introduction to the novel Mastro-Don Gesualdo

Mali Harries as Mara
Declan Conlon as Nanni Lascar
(Photo: John Haynes)

La Lupa is a tale with all the passion of a Greek tragedy and, like Greek tragedy, the characters find that their fate is inescapable. David Lan has written a new version of Giovanni Verga's tale, which was first published in 1880 in a collection of Sicilian short stories called Life in the Fields and which was subsequently dramatised in 1895 as a two act play in Turin. The play was staged only after Puccini had rejected La Lupa as an operatic storyline. Mascagni's opera Cavalleria Rusticana was derived from another of Verga's tales but with other librettists. Verga was sorely disappointed with the reception given to the original performances of La Lupa, as I fear he might be with the latest version in London Barbican studio theatre, The Pit.

The play is set among the farmers of Sicily. Pina (Brid Brennan), a widow, is attracted to a younger man, Nanni Lasca (Declan Conlon). He rejects her, saying that he would rather have her daughter, Mara (Mali Harries). Pina demonstrates her love for him by giving him that daughter as well as all her property and land. Nanni marries Mara but cannot resist the sexual advances of Pina, the she wolf. This eternal triangle, Sicialian dysfunctional family style, naturally has to end badly. Any feminist subtext is negated by Pina who says "Mothers like me? We should be fed to the pigs, mothers like me" It is simply a tale of a mother and a husband who put their attraction for each other before their obligations to her daughter/his wife and ignore the teachings of the Church on sin.

Milan's Simona Gonella's direction injects some lusty peasant dances with atmospheric accordion music that is more effective than her main characters . January in Britain does not help conjure the heat of Sicily and, sadly, the cast has not succeeded in conveying the steamy sex and sultriness of Verga's story. If we do not see the attraction of the she wolf or the pale, delicate daughter we cannot understand Nanni's predicament. The text's list of characters has clear summaries which have not been taken into account. Janet Whiteside is excellent as Aunt Philomena the tough old woman who "speaks like an oracle and knows more than the Boss." There are also good performances from the other peasants.

The Pit has been remodelled this season into a space several times wider than the audience is deep. I may need to go there a few timesmore before I adjust to its impact. Initially it felt like being in a university lecture theatre, except with deeply comfortable seats. I had to keep turning my head to see all of the stage which is like an elongated photograph.

Set designer David Fielding, given credit in the programme leaflet for the "Environment", has created brilliantly white walls which dazzle. They are adorned with ladders, scythes, bales of straw and ancient farm implements. The effect is intended to convey bright sunlight but it looks too clean in contrast with the peasants who are dressed in shades of grey and sepia. The specially composed music, in the classical vein, is very dramatic. David Lan writes very well and his adaptation is worthy of a more sensual production.

Written by Giovanni Verga
Adapted by David Lan
Directed by Simona Gonella

With: Brid Brennan, Karen Bryson, Declan Conlon, Mali Harries, David Mara, Paul McEwan, Tom Smith, Glyn Sweet, Emma Swinn, Janet Whiteside
Design: Nicky Gillibrand
Lighting Design: Simon Kemp
Sound Design: Andrea J Cox
Music by Mia Soteriou
Running time: One hour forty minutes without an interval
Box Office: 020 7638 8891
Booking to February 24th 2001
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 16th January 2001 performances from the Royal Shakespeare Company at The Pit, The Berbican Centre, Sil Street London EC2

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1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001   Elyse Sommer.