Saturday, November 25, 2017

REVIEW: Little Wolf (Pontio, Bangor)

The loss of a child is one of the most horrifying and emotionally exhausting events that can happen to anyone, and none more so than the child's parents and family. We've all seen it on the news, when a child is reported missing and the local community joins the emergency services in searching the area, combing the landscape for clues. And then the dreaded press conference where the parents issue an emotional plea for the child to come home, reassuring them that they've done nothing wrong, that mummy won't be angry. Or pleading with an abductor to let the child go, unharmed. It's devastating just to watch such a scenario play out, never mind be directly involved with it.

So you'd expect a play about the loss (and subsequent death) of a child to be packed with raw emotion, to grab you by the heartstrings and seriously mess you up. It's a fundamentally emotional event, invoking anger, frustration, hatred, fear and despair. Indeed, the publicity for Little Wolf - an adaptation by Simon Harris of Henrik Ibsen's 1895 play Little Eyolf - promises a "vital and raw" production, but unfortunately it turns up lacking.

Gwydion Rhys, John-Paul Macleod
and Melangell Dolma
Little Wolf's failure isn't in the adaptation - Harris has actually written a compelling and intelligent retelling of the original - but in the execution. Harris also directs, and it is in the presentation of the material that the vitality is lost. The actors' form of delivery is muted and flat, as if they are saying the lines rather than performing them. There are glimmers of that promised raw emotion, where the characters appear to truly feel what they're claiming, but for the most part, the performances lack the impact the words might have if delivered with more oomph.

I considered that the way the actors appear to be holding back might be a creative decision on Harris's part, that the traditionally restrained performance style of an Ibsen play has been carried through to this modernisation, to create a contrast between the raw emotion of the subject matter and the slightly numbed performances. But if that is the case, then it fundamentally undermines the play and its subject matter, because you can't numb the audience's feelings and reactions to such a horrifying event. The audience demands to feel and share the despair, but all they really get is a cavalcade of arguing and swearing, neutered of true feeling.

At its most basic level, I did not believe the situation or the characters, because they were not acting as you would expect. Admittedly, there is an inherent reason why some of the characters - notably Wolf's mother Rita - don't act the way one might expect, because the entire play is essentially about how she craves the loving, physical relationship she had with husband Alfred before she fell pregnant. She does not love her son the way mothers should, or at least she doesn't express her love the same way. Alfred has, at times, been an absent father, but one who intended to change his ways and concentrate fully on Wolf's upbringing. Too little, too late of course.

Melangell Dolma and Gwydion Rhys
But the schism at the heart of Ibsen's play is no excuse for emasculating its emotional truth. The actors make a good fist of the material, but there's a strong sense of a decision to not "let go" too much throughout their performances. Gwydion Rhys is the most impressive as guilt-ridden Alfred, who feels the loss of his boy most harshly, and his depiction of a father gradually fracturing, searching for his son beneath the floorboards and in the wardrobe, is the most honest performance.

Alex Clatworthy makes Rita a thoroughly unlikeable woman for most of the play. She resents Wolf, wishes he'd never been born, because motherhood has destroyed the special (and physical) marriage she had with Alfred. It was a fascinating and very brave theme for Ibsen to write about because it makes the play slightly difficult to watch. Maybe more mothers (and fathers) than would ever admit it have felt some level of resentment toward their children than we expect. It's one of those taboo thoughts that people suppress and never talk about. It's a courageous thing to depict on stage, and Clatworthy succeeds in portraying a woman who is unashamed of these thoughts.

Clatworthy shines brightest at the end of the play when she has an extended speech which summarises exactly what happened to the disabled Wolf all those years ago, and why both parties feel guilty and divided by events. It's what the audience has been desperate to know from the start, but is it clumsy or rewarding to have it info-dumped at the end? It feels a little like Poirot gathering everyone together in the drawing room to reveal the killer - we want to know, but must it be told so bluntly?

In support there is Melangell Dolma as Alfred's half-sister Asta, and the secondary theme of incest running through the play is perhaps the better judged. There is a genuine connection between the siblings which benefits from being suggested rather than expressed too strongly, because incest is another taboo that dare not speak its name. The holding of the hands, the lingering hugs, the sister dressing and undressing the brother. The very subtleties that work against the principal storyline actually benefit the incest subplot.

Gwydion Rhys
John-Paul Macleod plays Asta's sometime beau Lars and is essentially there for comic effect. Macleod does his best but rarely succeeds in bringing a little light to the otherwise very dark proceedings. Harris's choice to repress extremes means that the rare comedic moments fall flat, or go undetected. There was barely a titter in the audience for a play that promised to be "blisteringly funny" in publicity. It might manage to be mildly amusing if the performers were free to employ comic timing or a dialogic range, but as it is, any levity barely gets off the ground. A crack about the capital city of Burkina Faso was surely written to raise a smile, if not a laugh, but it merely sails by unnoticed.

There is a cracking play to be staged in Simon Harris's adaptation. His idea to modernise Ibsen's work for the 21st century brings so much more relevance and dimension to the source material, but sadly this production does not do it justice. When a child goes missing, and is then found dead, it's a horrifying, devastating event, a living nightmare. Sadly, this fundamental truth fails to come across on this occasion.

Addendum: Please read the writer/ director's comment on the performance below, for fair context.

The stats
Writer: Simon Harris (based on the Henrik Ibsen play)
Director: Simon Harris
Cast: Alex Clatworthy (Rita); Melangell Dolma (Asta); John-Pul Macleod (Lars); Gwydion Rhys (Alfred)
Performed at Pontio, Bangor, on November 24th-25th, 2017. Performance reviewed: November 24th, 2017

Lucid Theatre on Facebook (retrieved Nov 25 2017)
Little Wolf behind the scenes videos on YouTube (retrieved Nov 25 2017)


  1. Thanks again for your review, Steve, and sorry you didn’t enjoy it as much as you hoped. I accept many of your comments, particularly about the emotional temperature of the performances. I would say that these elements have been very much in evidence so far and, indeed, has been one of the reasons people have responded so well. There’s no doubt, however, that Little Wolf is a challenging play to perform and touring into different spaces with very little time to adjust can have an impact on a delicately balanced piece. Last night was a case in point. Acoustically, the studio felt a little flat with no resonance and, although not dependent on audience reaction, the chemistry felt very different. However, whatever the reason, some of the playing felt remote and disengaged when that has not usually been the case. In terms of the humour, normally, there are some laughs in the early stages. The actors felt they didn’t give the audience permission to laugh and the audience may have had trouble adjusting to the performance. I think one of the main casualties was the ending which is almost a ritual reconstruction of two diverging narratives about the past coming together in new shared narrative, which is almost always moving and allows for optimism. For it to seem like “an info-dump” something has gone awry. I hope you will accept that this was not a conscious production decision. The main thrust has been to enable people to identify and engage with the emotion. I am still pondering why that may not have happened last night, but that is the nature of live performance. The actors are instructed to make it new and change it night by night. So sometimes the things that you think are good just slip through your fingers. That said, there was man in front of me who was clapping like a maniac at the end. I was very touched to hear him ask the Pontio staff to pass on his “massive congratulations” to the company. He’d seen Little Eyolf once before and thought that this version had captured it in a modern updating perfectly. Thanks again for coming along, Steve. Best wishes, Simon Harris.

  2. I found it very interesting it seeing the show at opening in Cardiff and then at Newport towards the end of the tour. I still enjoyed in immensely but party because there were elements I remembered from Cardiff that were missing in Newport. For example, the scene where Asta appears and voices the child was magical in Cardiff with the lighting producing a shadowy, indistinct silhouette whereas in Newport it was just Asta standing there. Also the smoke filled the Npt stage and made some audience members cough and do I not remember it at all in Cardiff and cannot think what is was for. Npt and Cdff laughed lots although I found Lars' movements more pronounced than in Cardiff, for comic effect. Maybe not. To me the reaction to the loss of the child seemed very real as the characters (apart from Lars) were obsessed with themselves and their own lives and relationships and as Rita says it seems they actually are quite relieved that he had gone. Anyway. Chaque un a son gout. Great to have this exchange. Be sure to send me review for ASIW. Mxx

  3. It is interesting how a play can have such different affect on reviewers and audiences in different venues and, no doubt, because of other factors. This is separate from individual subjective opinion and response to a work which is perfectly normal and good, just look at how some raved abut The cherry Orchard which left this review (me) unmoved, and how London reviewers hated Tiger Bay and reviewers in Wales found more to be positive about int he work. When I saw Little Wolf the audience in Cardiff & Newport laughed a lot, including parts I didn't think were meant to be funny. I also think the play worked better in Chapter than in The Riverfront and had different feel; less subtle & less shocking. I found the lighting design worked far better in Cardiff and the video and sounds more moving. I wonder if the Pontio experience was close to Newport than Cardiff.


Did you see the show too? I'd love to hear your feedback!