Humanity put on display

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.

01. Belvoir Sydney, The Wild Duck, Anita Hegh credit Heidrun LöhrSimon 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.

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