REVIEW: The Wild Duck, Barbican Theatre ✭✭✭✭✭

 The Wild Duck: Richard Piper as Ekdal senior in Sydney's Belvoir Company's production  Photo: Alastair Muir

The Wild Duck: Richard Piper as Ekdal senior in Sydney’s Belvoir Company’s production Photo: Alastair Muir

The Wild Duck (after Ibsen)
Barbican Theatre
23 October 2014
5 Stars

The ushers cover the exit signs, the large crowd chatters on; then the lights dim. Only the television monitors are active in the sudden darkness, imploring the audience to switch off their mobile phones (a message which, as is lamentably too often the case these days, goes unheeded by the ignorant, moronic few). A burst of light. It starts. But what are we looking at? A large rectangular glass shape…like a fish tank…is it a fish tank? And there, a real live duck. In the fish tank. It regards the audience with scepticism, flaps its wings, seems as if it might try to fly, makes a kind of quacking sound. Then darkness.

So begins the Belvoir Street Theatre production of “The Wild Duck by Simon Stone with Chris Ryan after Henrik Ibsen”, directed by Stone which, having scooped awards in Sydney, Australia and played the International Ibsen Festival in Oslo and the Vienna Festival, is now playing a limited season at the Barbican.

It is, in every way, a complete theatrical triumph; a marvellous reimagining of Ibsen, set firmly in an Australian idiom, resonating with thrilling power, and chilling, insightful imagination. If you have but a passing interest in theatre, do yourself a favour and see it immediately. It will be a long time before you see something quite like this again, if ever.

In his programme notes, Stone says:

“This version of The Wild Duck removes the need to justify the fact that all of the events of the play are conveniently taking place in one or two locations over only a few days. It exposes the spine of the plot and acknowledges the fundamental artifice of the theatre’ presentation of dramatic events. We see one tragic week in the lives of six people. The events of the story take place in a void space – everywhere and nowhere. All that remains are the characters’ interactions with each other. We use a framework that is voyeuristic but also forensic. We are anatomising a tragedy…The plot declares its own hand and liberates the characters from their need to arrive on time and reveal the right information, so that they can be completely themselves in their own struggle.”

When I read that passage, prior to the performance commencing, my heart sank. Why would anyone need to justify where the events of the play take place? The director’s job is to make the play work, to illuminate the text. A void? Really? Aren’t we done with that old-fashioned avant grade approach to realistic drama? Voyeuristic? Please – no film sequences which appear on television screens! How can the plot declare its own hand? How can characters in a drama be liberated from arriving on time and saying their lines? It sounded like the struggle would me mine.

But those fears proved unfounded and, although Stone must obviously believe what he writes, the production did not live up (or down, depending on you or point of view) to that spiel.

Firstly, this is not Ibsen’s play and, happily, it doesn’t pretend to be. That it is a complete reimagining is perfectly clear from the billing. One star for that. The plot is very different in many keys ways and those differences provide a stark, grim and ultimately horrific experience. The original may have debated points about truth and the lies that see people through their lives but this adaptation shows truth and lies in action and the vivid, vicious consequences the truth can bring.

Secondly, the action does not take place in a void. It takes place in a confined see-through prison; a place where lies trap you but allow you to live. Just as the duck at the start of the play thinks it is free and happy and loved, so do all of the characters who exist inside the glass prison, one way or another. It is only when the truth dispels the lies that there can be existence outside of the glass prison, albeit a life where those living it wish they could return to the happier times inside the glass prison. Another star for the design – Ralph Myers.

Thirdly, the characters still arrive on time and reveal the right information. They just do that differently than Ibsen may have envisaged it and not in a small part because the plot is wildly different and entire characters simply do not appear in this pared down version. But there is definitely a fluidity to the movement which is entrancing and which emphasises the fact that things happen in one place but have repercussions in different places. Sometimes characters linger in the glass prison, after their lines are done, presenting a kind of halo effect of their presence. When the mother collapses after her husband leaves her having learnt the truth about the progenitor of “their daughter”, Hedvig, she stays in a foetal position on the floor as other scenes occur around her. Her presence perfectly illustrates the place she has in the minds of those who interact as she lies there, prone, full of agony and despair, unable to cope. Another star for the inspired, free flowing movement which is a hallmark of the direction here.

Fourthly, except that, in the ordinary way that audiences do, the actors are watched as they perform there is nothing particularly voyeuristic about this production. But that is not to say that it is anything other than completely compelling and thoroughly gripping; knowing the original Ibsen text will not particularly assist you here – there are serious, graphic and horrifying shocks to live through. The scalpel like precision to every scene, every gesture, every truth, every painful recrimination cuts to the bone. When the play commences, several people are living lies and all but one is happy; at its end, none are living lies, one is dead and no one is happy. The truth might set you free, but freedom comes at an almighty cost. One more star.

But when Stone says that his vision permits the characters to be “completely themselves in their own struggle” no quibble can be had with that. Each actor is given a glorious opportunity to play a mercurial, complex, frail and intensely human character. And each and every one of them is extraordinarily good.

Sara West is dynamite as the precocious and brilliant Hedvig. She is totally convincing as a fifteen year old and the sense of family harmony she establishes with her parents is profoundly assured. Her scenes with the older men in her life are all quite wonderfully complex and the scene where she mistakenly thinks that Dan Wylie’s Gregers might be attracted to her is bone-curdling. And she misses no beats, at all, in the ghastly pas de deux with her father when he angrily, stupidly and unforgivably rejects her.

Anita Hegh is sublime as Hedvig’s mother, Gina. Faultlessly underplayed, a perfect portrait of covered up misdeeds, aching regret and happiness stolen by the ravages of the truth. Her stillness is astonishing as is the kaleidoscope of degrees of pain and sorrow she can display. There is a perfection in the feminine ordinariness of her character which is difficult to explain but impossible not to admire.

Brendan Cowell, as the archetypal “Aussie bloke”, is perfection. The Everyman quality he brings to the role of Hjalmar here is as insightful as it is painful to watch. A good guy destroyed by his male pride and his best mate’s penchant for the truth. This version makes Hjalmar a difficult character for the audience to love, but Cowell’s sense of dynamic realism, his brave, clever performance, ensures that his Hjalmar is seen, believed and understood, though perhaps not forgiven. It’s a meaty, powerful performance.

John Gaden is pitch perfect as the smooth old rogue, Werle, who has made millions and lied and schemed his whole life. Going blind, about to marry a 28 year old who could be his grand-daughter’s age (if he had one), this ghastly, old, self-interested bastard is the worm that rots the apple. Gaden plays him with delicious relish and just the right degree of self-deprecation and crushing guilt. His scene with Hedvig is magical – just like lighting the blue touch paper, and with the same resultant fireworks.

As Hjalmar’s father, Ekdal, Richard Piper is splendidly gruff and beaten down, slipping into dementia. He has kept his secrets and now tends his animals in the funny little fake habitat set up for him in his son’s home. He has rescued the titular Duck, just as his unacknowledged actions have rescued all of the other characters, one way or another. Another perfectly judged turn, part pain, part hopelessness, part wishful thinking.

The hardest role in this version of The Wild Duck is that of Gregers, Werle’s son, who wants nothing really to do with his father or his father’s fortune. His mother called him before her suicide, told him some facts, and he is, thus, bitter and resentful. He knows a secret, or part of a secret and determines to tell that secret, partly to punish his father, but partly, at least, because he genuinely believes it is the right thing to do. It’s not, and the consequences of his candour are far-reaching and cataclysmic. Wylie charts a charming course through the rocky path his character treads and although, in one sense, he is the villain of the piece, in another, he is the chief victim: he has never really experienced love as a member of a family.

The acting really is world class. Another star for that.

Stevan Gregory provides new music, special arrangements and sound effects which add greatly to the overall effect of the performance. Especially good are the snatches of classical music which start off superbly but unravel as they proceed; and there is an amazing sound effect, almost of the Universe screaming, at the point where the first great truth is told and the Ekdal world is torn asunder. Delicate lighting from Niklas Pajanti establishes mood shifts and, especially, consequences of action in a vivid, startling way.

No question – this is a thrilling theatrical event. Stone’s vision is clear, ambitious and electrifying. And it works – it really works. Great acting, great direction, a great script. As Sweet Charity put it: All I can say is “Wow!”

Do whatever you need to do – but don’t miss your chance to catch this masterful production.

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