Whereas Peter Gill and Gary Owen have recently reimagined for Welsh audiences a pair of canonical Chekhov plays, Simon Harris has opted to deconstruct Ibsen’s lesser-known and underappreciated Little Eyolf. He has done so with scalpel-like precision to reveal the continuing relevance of this darkly complex and frequently misunderstood minor masterpiece. Holly Piggot’s set evokes the chilled-out blandness of contemporary Scandi-chic but Harris’ Little Wolf burns with the raging pain of grief, the seething resentment of a loveless marriage and the illicit passion of incestuous desire. This may sound like the perfect recipe for a long winter’s night of Nordic miserablism, yet the subtle insight and sly wit of Harris’ dialogue, capably handled by an adroit cast, ensure the play engrosses and emotionally involves as it balances searing honesty with scabrous humour.
Little Wolf centres on a family whose fault-lines are cruelly exposed by the disappearance and subsequent death of a young disabled boy, and by the cycles of guilt and recrimination that ensue. The marriage of Alfred and Rita Allmers had fractured after their son was injured during infancy, in an accident resulting from a moment of temporary neglect. Alfred’s frustration at failing to complete a career-defining literary novel, and his ambiguous attraction to his half-sister Asta, add further levels of dysfunction. Gwydion Rhys seems a little underpowered as Alfred, notably in the play’s first scenes in which he embodies a nervy anxiety rather than – as indicated in the text – the stomach-churning terror of a father whose disabled son is missing. Rhys rises to the occasion quite admirably in the second-half, however, in which the dislocation and alienation of overwhelming grief is conveyed with simplicity and quiet power. Alex Clatworthy is particularly impressive as Rita, delineating a simmering sexual frustration that lies beneath her hollowed out despair.
As the play progresses, the little boy’s attic bedroom is cleared of child’s toys and several floor-tiles are taken up and removed. This stripped down set serves as a visual metaphor for a spiritual divestment of the lies and hypocrisies that have trapped Alfred and Rita in an odd, decidedly fraught, albeit unconsummated menage-a-trois with Asta, played by a low-key Melangell Dolma. The theme of incest is somewhat underdeveloped in Harris’ version of the play. In a bruising confrontation, Rita voices her fear that her husband’s love for his half-sister teeters on the brink of taboo, but with Alfred so totally immersed in grief there’s little room for the character to explore fully the nature and ramifications of his incestuous longing. In the original Little Eyolf, the notion of an unchanging love between brother and sister is more pointedly contrasted with the love shared by a married couple, which for Ibsen (whose own marriage was very unhappy) was more prone to change and decay.
Harris’ considerable achievement in Little Wolf is to refashion from Ibsen’s profound, though undeniably problematic Little Eyolf, a new work that speaks to our modern anxieties regarding marriage – how it functions and dysfunctions, and how it’s tasked with being a lasting and stable ‘institution’ in a world that’s changing with digitalised speed. Ibsen’s traditional three-act structure is reconstituted by Harris into eleven short, almost cinematic scenes, rendering the unfolding action of the play, with its manifold revelations of family secrets, an increased credibility. As a result, his adaptation is also more focused and intimate than the original, with the removal of several of Ibsen’s mystical flourishes, particularly that of the semi-mythical Rat-wife figure who lures the boy to his death. Admittedly, Harris’ version lacks the grandeur and intellectual reach of Ibsen’s flawed though fascinating late play, which concludes with the shattered Alfred and Rita seeking redemption upon understanding, for the first time, in the midst of their own pain, the suffering of the poor children in their local community. The Allmers pledge to transfer the compassion they didn’t express toward their son, or each other, to the people they’ve ignored out of upper middle-class self-absorption. Harris provides an ending that’s less morally didactic, though no less hopeful and conciliatory. Though the visionary power of Ibsen’s Little Eyolf is somewhat narrowed in scope in Harris’ Little Wolf, in this age of fake news, social-media spats and dyspeptic public discourse, there’s something deeply moving, even thrilling, about watching two people tell each other the truth and begin to forgive.
Little Wolf tours to the following venues: Volcano Theatre Swansea – 2-4 November & 7-11 November, Theatr Clwyd Mold – 13 & 14 November, Theatr Brycheiniog Brecon – 16 & 17 November, Riverfront Arts Centre, Newport – 22 November, and Pontio Arts Centre, Bangor, 24 & 25 November.