THEATRE Little Eyolf RSC, The Swan, Stratford-upon-Avon

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The Independent Culture
There are two great dramas on at the moment in which a young son is used as a pawn in a deadly game played out by parents whose marriage has turned into an orgy of neurotic scab-picking. In one, the son exists in all but fact and, at the close, is cathartically killed off by his creators. This play is called Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

In the other, the pawn-son is a little crippled boy who sustained his injury in a fall when left unattended, as a baby, by parents who were making love at the time. Since then, he has been more a symbol of their mutually estranging guilt than a child to them. And, at the end of the first act, it's as though the fact that his mother thinks that she does not want him wills this unfortunate infant to his death. A Rat Wife - who functions both as a Norwegian pest control expert and, like the witches in Macbeth, the personification of unspoken desire - lures him out to his drowning in the fiord. This play is called Little Eyolf by Ibsen and it is staged now in a production of stunning power and persuasiveness by Adrian Noble in the Swan.

With its long thrust-stage, its vertical stack of balconies and its matchless mix of spaciousness and intimacy, the Swan was designed for the purpose of putting on neglected plays by Shakespeare's contemporaries. But it's been a joyful discovery that this spatial arrangement works brilliantly for Chekhov and Ibsen. Particularly for early and late Ibsen, where the social realist is joined by the great symbolist poet.

Rob Howell's design is beautifully uncluttered. Almost bare, even in the interior scenes, the stage has a fissured-stone look and on the back wall, representing the fatal fiord, there's an abstract mural of glaucous greens and turquoises. The space released by this enables Noble to group the characters in ways that make you think that, whereas it would be inconceivable to make a ballet of, say, An Enemy of the People, this play would yield very interesting results if reduced to choreography.

While Joanne Pearce and Robert Glenister as the parents prowl in nervous strain round the edges of the stage like potential Strindbergian duellists, little Eyolf sits at the centre on the knee of his aunt (excellent Derbhle Crotty). There are various complicated reasons why the bereaved couple would like this aunt to remain with them as marital cement. Again, this is conveyed with the diagrammatic clarity of ballet when Crotty finds herself at the centre of a human sandwich that they create beseechingly. The use of the word "diagram" carries no strictures with it here, for the production is full of moment-by-moment, psychologically acute detail.

As the mother, Joanne Pearce is simply astonishing. Making maximum use of those close-set, drilling eyes, she lets you see that the person she is glaring at most is herself. Her face is almost permanently atremble, evincing what William Blake would have called "the lineaments of ungratified desire". The sexiness of this actress has always had a slightly frightening quality to it, and when her Rita reclines invitingly on the chaise longue here, you can understand why Glenister's wonderfully overwrought Alfred does not feel up to it.

Rita's position is one in which women still find themselves. Left to look after the child, she essentially loses her husband, who, when he realises that he isn't going to be the success he thought he'd be, tries to take the son from her so as to achieve his ambitions by proxy. Leaving her with nothing.

Only the ending of the play, rightly made very tentative here, strikes a false note. The idea that this couple may resolve their difficulties by running a home for lost fiord urchins is more than faintly grotesque. You would certainly pity any child put into their distraught care.

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Paul Taylor