There’s nothing like an evening of Mediterranean sunshine and passion to lift the gloom of these cold winter days. Unfortunately, the RSC’s production of this celebrated Italian work falls a long way short of theatrical warmth and the passion is strangely lacking. Italian director Simona Gonella has created a leisurely-paced slice of Sicilian life that never really sets the pulse racing.

The story is an old slant on the eternal triangle. Pina the she-wolf of the title, is a woman on the brink of middle age scarcely able to control her passion for a much younger man. When he marries her daughter, Mara, the story moves inexorably to a tragic conclusion. Unfortunately, the principal characters don’t really work. As Pina, Brid Brennan superbly suggests the tragic aftermath of the woman’s doomed obsession, but doesn’t wholly convince as someone who’s driven by this passion in the first place.

But then, she would find it hard to be aroused by this particular Nanni Lasca. Declan Conlon sleepwalks through the part. Nonchalantly unaware of the effect he has on two women, he scarcely portrays someone so driven by lust that he’s prepared for an adulterous liaison with his own mother-in-law. Mali Harries’s Mara is better. Forced to walk a fine line between disgust with her own mother, love for her husband and her own strong religious feelings, she captures well the conflicts inherent in this young woman.

The real problem with the piece is the thinness of the writing. For all David Lan’s attempts to bring it up to date, it remains a slight tale. Even at only 95 minutes, there are some desperate amounts of padding that no director can really hide. Nearly half an hour is taken up by the villagers’ dancing.

As befits a story that would make a superb one-act opera – we are in Cavalleria Rusticana territory here - there are some great opportunities for the composer. And here at least, Mia Soteriou’s music is an unqualified success. Using a wide range of musical styles, she paints a thumbnail sketch of all aspects of Sicilian village life. It can’t lift this production from the mundane however…and it was still cold outside.

Maxwell Cooter

Note: The following review dates from July 200 and the production's original Stratford run.

The RSC's studio theatre, The Other Place, since its re-design by David Fielding, has become one of the most exciting theatrical spaces in England and it provides a suitably intense environment for this hot-house of Latin emotions to be played out, inexorably, to the death. Author Giovanni Verga is best known for writing the short story on which Mascagni's opera Cavalleria Rusticana is based and La Lupa takes us into the same world of Sicilian passion and violence.

It examines the tragic love triangle which unites Pina, the she-wolf of the title, her daughter Mara and Mara's husband Nanni, the object of Pina's uncontrollable desire. After Puccini had abandoned plans to base an opera on the original short story, Verga developed it as a play in 1896. This is a new version by David Lan, the celebrated playwright and artistic director of the Young Vic Theatre.

The play is directed by Simona Gonella of the Piccolo Teatro of Milan, and the movement trainer is Roberto Romei, the distinguished Italian director, actor and teacher, so one hesitates to complain that the atmosphere is not authentic. But the sophisticated, wealthy urban centres of northern Italy are a long way from the poor south, and this production lacks the smell of Sicily, the searing heat and grinding poverty.

The atmospheric dances of the farm labourers which precede the development of the narrative appear to have been developed from the actors' rehearsal warming-up exercises. They give a sense of character and relationships and help lengthen what would otherwise be a rather short evening. Brid Brennan as Pina, Declan Conlon as Nanni, her son-in-law and lover, and most notably Mali Harries as Mara, daughter and wife, give strong performances in the central roles. But the play is essentially an ensemble piece and all the members of the team work hard for each other.

There is, however, one actor it's worth walking to Stratford to see. Paul McEwan plays Malerba, a minor character who comments on rather than participates in the action. Quality shines through everything this thrilling, dangerous, charismatic actor does. This season, he's playing only two relatively minor roles, but his is a major talent. In the tradition of Steven Mackintosh and, from an earlier generation, of Peter O'Toole, this is an actor prepared to take risks and the result is electric.

This production of La Lupa is imaginatively designed by Nicky Gillibrand and superbly lit by Simon Kemp. All in all, it's a good evening in the theatre, but one is left with a feeling of regret that Puccini abandoned his plans, for really this is the stuff of grand opera.

Robert Hole

La Lupa opened at The Other Place, Stratford-upon-Avon, 4 July 2000 (previews from 22 June) and continues there in repertory until 7 October 2000.