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

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.

Box office: 01789 295623

Paul Taylor

Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
books
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
books
Arts and Entertainment
The man with the golden run: Daniel Craig as James Bond in 'Skyfall'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Waving Seal' by Luke Wilkinson was Highly Commended in the Portraits category

photography
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor