The Wild Duck – Barbican Theatre, until 01 November (tickets)
The last time I watched an Australian theatre company was when Sydney Theatre Company, boasting the talents of Cate Blanchett, Benedict Andrews and Martin Crimp, pitched up at the Barbican with a rather underwhelming production of Boho Strauss’ Big and Small.
Two years later Benedict Andrews’ star has reached the stratosphere with a highly-lauded Three Sisters being followed by the smash-hit of the summer; the Young Vic’s A Streetcar Named Desire. Meanwhile it is time for another Australian-import, as the Belvoir Sydney take part in the International Ibsen season at the Barbican, to go alongside invited productions of Peer Gynt and An Enemy of the People. Over the course of a tumultuous ninety minutes they prove they can certainly hold their own against strong competition.
Simon Stone has taken scissors to Ibsen’s The Wild Duck and, in stripping out exposition and characters, has created an entirely modern, rigorously taut and emotional devastating portrait of a family in collapse. In short, tightly drawn scenes he presents with discomforting acuity the fragility that surrounds us.
Portrait is a carefully chosen word, and Stone appears to continually have in mind Hjalmar’s job as photographer. Scenes are punctuated by a sharp cut to blackout in a move that apes the flash of a photographer’s bulb, and which serves to sear images into the mind. Direction is highly stylised and all of Ibsen’s naturalism is stripped away. The play is presented within a glass box that suggests a photographic studio and also works as a specific commentary on theatre’s ability to put human beings on display for the audience’s consumption. Trapped within the glass box, the characters come to resemble animals in a zoo – living entirely in their own world but permanently open to an unseen audience.
It is only at the very end of the play that characters venture out of their glass prison, and it is this final scene that will break even the hardest of hearts. After the rapidity of scenes building up to a crescendo that it is inevitable as the gun on Hedda Gabbler’s wall, we suddenly have the quiet calm. The storm has blown itself out and the survivors slowly, quietly regroup to survey the damage and tally-up the losses. Brendan Cowell’s Hjalmar and Anita Hegh’s Gina present the raw reality of humans bereft and broken by circumstance. Here Hakon’s macular degeneration acts as both crucial plot point and metaphor for the way that Hjalmar and Gina must now grope their way blindly towards the future.
The scene is a moment of shattering clarity; it is one of those rare, fleeting instances that drama finds a way of expressing life in complete truth and is able to present it in all its imperfect roundness. Cowell and Hegh are wonderful in showing us two humans that have been through too much to bear to be together but whose shared experience means they can never truly be apart. They are left to face the decision of whether it is better to be lonely alone or with another. The scene must end, but it does so off-stage. The Barbican stage has shown us everything it can and life continues out-of-sight. We hear a taxi pull away and Cowell’s deep, rasping sigh; even if we are not consciously aware of the fact, there is a part of all of us that recognises the sound as that of emotion being dredged to the surface from the bottom of the very deepest of wells.
The production cannot quite sustain this level of brilliance throughout. There are issues with the process of amplifying the actors and the cutting process hasn’t entirely balanced out the characters. Gregers, the idealist whose belief in the truth at all costs set in motion a tragic train of events, is presented as a rather warm-hearted character but the perversity of his action within a modern setting is rather hard to square with this approach. He is rather to clean-cut and his ‘niceness’ is presented as reasons for why he must tell Hjalmar about Gina, but it is precisely his thoughtful nature that would suggest he could see the inevitability consequence of his actions.
Richard Piper is excellent as Ekdal; haunting Hjalmar as the image of what might be and distressingly truthful in his fear of failing to remember meeting Gregers. Piper is powerful in his ability to capture the way that Ekdal’s gruffness is as much based on this fear of encroaching old age as it is from being out of step with modern times. His attic forest is presented as much as a retreat from old age, as it is a deliberate return to the past.
However it is Cowell and Hegh who form the centre of this play, and both are exceptional. Cowell’s performance takes a little time to warm too but it eventually becomes clear that his extrovert ebullience is a thin shell created when his father effectively abandoned him by going to jail. The return of Gregers and the inevitability revisiting of the past is enough to cause the cracks to become clear.
Hegh is simply breathtaking as the mother and wife caught in the centre of an emotional maelstrom, seeing a long-held secret slip out of her control. There is a brilliant directorial moment where Stone’s underpins the big reveal with the perfect light and music cue. The sound shattering the auditorium appears to send the play, already hurtling along, into overdrive. Hegh’s Gina is left shouting inaudibly against the noise but no-one is in a position to hear her.
Stone has proved that Ibsen’s text is not sacrosanct. He has modernised it but he has done so to ensure that it remains real to the world it is set in. The core of Ibsen, and why it is becoming increasingly clear to this reviewer just how important he is as a dramatist, is that there is malleability to his plays. They can be reframed and rewritten but they still work. His innate understanding of people and why they do the things they do has barely been matched. The plot of The Wild Duck should be melodrama but yet Ibsen gives a truth to it that lifts it out of the ordinary and justifies its position as one of his masterpieces.
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