The Wild Duck
Almeida Theatre, 28th November 2018
He’s only gone and done it again. Director Robert Icke has taken Ibsen’s perhaps most circumspect, but probably greatest, masterpiece, from 1884, and adapted it to make it shine anew and say something profound about our world today. There may be a small price to pay in terms of subtlety, (and the sense of eyebrows-raised irony that permeates old Henrik’s world), but the gain, in terms of the clarity of text and story, and the lecture on the nature of truth, more than compensates. Mr Icke, to paraphrase Ian Drury, ain’t half a clever bastard, and he has no qualms about showing us that he is, but when he creates theatre as powerful as this then we should all be grateful. Mary Stuart, Uncle Vanya, Oresteia, Hamlet, 1984, Oedipus, Romeo and Juliet and now this. One or two hiccups outside these triumphs for sure but when he takes a classic and lets fly with his intellectual vajazzling you know you are in for a treat.
Gregory Woods (yep, as in his Vanya, Icke has anglicised the names), has just returned from a self-imposed exile. His father Charles is having a party to celebrate his betrothal to his housekeeper Anna Sowerby, also attended by Greg’s old school chum, jobbing photographer James Ekdal. James has married Gina, previously a servant in the Woods household, who may have had an “affair” with patriarch Charles, at least according to Greg’s now dead (unhappy) mum. Greg believes James and Gina’s life is built on a lie. In subsequent acts, set in the Ekdal’s apartment and photography studio, we also meet James’s own broken, alcoholic father Francis, once Charles’s business partner, daughter Hedwig, who is slowly losing her sight, and cynical neighbour, John Relling.
Oh and there is a wild duck upstairs, (or not as it turns out). And, when Bunny Christie’s set extravagantly pays off near the end, (in tandem with the production itself), much more besides. It is artifice, of course, that’s Icke’s point, but it is so dammed affecting.
You might have guessed that Mr Icke treats us to more than the naturalism normally accorded to Mr Ibsen’s play however. The play opens with an empty stage. It’s the old rehearsal room schtick. Kevin Harvey as Gregory, (last seen by me in preposterously high heels and sparkly drag in the marvellous community theatre Pericles at the National), sets the scene armed with microphone and explanation. “All stories are lies”. That’s the gist of it. Edward Hogg’s James enters from the stalls and borrows a jacket from an unfortunate front-rower. He takes the mic and starts to explain his character. And so we continue with the actors coming in, seizing the mic, (Nicholas Day’s Charles started off in a seat next door to the Tourist), and then breaking into the narrative of the play itself to offer reflections on their characters motivations, the way Ibsen’s own life, (notably the illegitimate daughter he fathered with a servant girl and abandoned), interact with the play and to explain sub-text. Gradually though Ibsen’s own words, (filtered through modern Norwegian and then Icke’s idiomatic English from archaic Danish-Norwegian as Greg reminds in an initial aside), take centre stage and the brilliance of his plot is revealed. Simultaneously the stage is, almost imperceptibly, transformed into a period version of the Ekdal household, as the props accumulate and Elliot Grigg’s lighting gradually dims.
Pretty much everyone in the Wild Duck lies to themselves and to each other. For that is what they do just to keep going, just like we all do. Their “life-lies” in Ibsen’s words. Political idealist Greg though is having none of this and, as he picks away at the scabs of the past, starting with his Dad, everything unravels. For him truth is what matters, regardless of the damage caused by its revelation. So he wades in with his size twelves leaving James as the main casualty, as the multiple skeletons cascade out of multiple metaphorical cupboards.
Now you might contest that Mr Icke too has aggressively waded in feet first in his determination to expose the message and the context of the play. Mind you I don’t know how big his boots are nor, indeed, whether he is, indeed, too big for them. It is just a clumsy metaphor. Just like the many that Ibsen employs. And now Icke. The real time “deconstruction” hammers home these metaphors but the attention to detail and intelligence of the “interventions” only serves to increase our understanding and enjoyment. The audible gasp from the audience at the big reveal shows me that Icke’s restoration job has made the Ibsen “original” arguably more powerful and more vivid. It certainly doesn’t want for emotional power. I’ll even forgive him the torch version of Love Will Tear Us Apart. Some might prefer their Old Masters in a mausoleum, dark, dingy and covered with layers of accumulated interpretative varnish. Not me. Get back to the original colours, slap them in a white, light filled room and provide copious notes please.
I’ll warrant that the cast also profited from the reworking. Kevin Harvey strikes just the right note of fractured righteousness in his soft Scouse. Edward Hogg is mesmerising as his pride is undone and his moods shift alarmingly. Nicholas Farrell and Nicholas Day excel as the two estranged fathers and Rick Warden as Relling and Andrea Hall as Anna Sowerby both offer convincing support. However for me the standout was Lyndsey Marshall as Gina, whose pain is most acute but who still has to pull the threads of her family together. “I don’t know if I love you but it is my best guess that I do”. Just marvellous. And finally I was frankly bloody stunned by the performance off Clara Read, as Hedwig in our performance. Little Hedwig is largely the reason why so many lies are told. Most young actors, when surrounded by adult characters, are always still acting however good their performance. Ms Read didn’t appear to be acting, ironic since, as I recall she was the only one on stage who didn’t break the fourth wall. I would love to see her perform again.
The Wild Duck sadly has flown away from the Almeida and, like The Writer, I suspect it may prove a little bit too cerebrally audacious for a West End sojourn. But it does prove the current No 1 rule of London Theatre. Always take a punt when booking opens on anything at the Almeida. Especially when directed by Mr Icke, Mr Goold or Ms Frecknall. Sounds like the Tragedy of King Richard the Second with Simon Russell-Beale is dividing the criterati – I have yet to see it, though reading between the lines and based on Joe Hill-Gibbons’ recent Shakespeare outings I suspect I’ll love it. But the new play by Annie Washburn, Shipwreck, looks tempting, (even if I had some reservations about her last two outings premiered here, Mr Burns and The Twilight Zone), and the Three Sisters, in an adaption by Cordelia Lynn, directed by Rebecca Frecknall, (whose Summer and Smoke is now bowling ’em over at the Duke of Yorks), and with Patsy Ferran and Pearl Chanda in the cast, is near guaranteed to be a belter.
Regular readers of this blog, (ok some kindly chums), have oft remarked that I am prone to generosity in my reviews, if not in life. True. But in this case if you don’t believe me then take the word of the SO who rated this Wild Duck up there with Network and The Lehman Trilogy as her plays of the year. And trust me she isn’t always easy to please. Theatrically that is, not domestically.
One final aside. I spend a lot of time in the theatre. It is therefore quantifiably a large part of my own reality. And sometimes it feels more real than reality. This was one of those times. I could still happily be sat in the Almeida watching the unhappiness of the Ekdals and the Woods three weeks later so immersed was I by the end. Pick the bones out of that.