Review: The Wild Duck ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Review: The Wild Duck

Last week Ms TN took a few days off to lounge about in the fleshpots of Sydney. And lo, it was good, although the perilous aspect of taking a short holiday is that it makes you understand how much you need a longer one. But it was not all caviar and champagne, I'll have you know. I had a good theatrical reason to be there: viz, it was the final week of Belvoir's justly acclaimed The Wild Duck, a contemporary take on Ibsen's play by Simon Stone and Chris Ryan.

It's so long since I last read this play that I couldn't remember what happened, so when I returned home I dragged out the Penguin classic. The translation is dodgy to say the least - it's full of people exclaiming "I say!" and "Oh, good Lord!", making you think of Bertie Wooster rather more than Nordic forests - but you can still squint through the creaky language and see the structures and ideas that informed the original.

Reading the original text only heightened my admiration of this production, which is the best so far of Simon Stone's increasingly interesting oeuvre. It's a fascinating evolution from Hayloft's Thyestes: Ryan and Stone are clearly applying and extending ideas from that production, but by no means repeating them. The text is, quite correctly, credited as "after Ibsen": it is effectively an extremely well-written new play. There are maybe three or four lines of Ibsen's text, if that, in this version. Major themes and a swathe of characters have vanished: the action is placed uncompromisingly in the 21st century, creating a strangely dislocated theatrical world, a contemporary Australian reality with Norwegian motifs.

What's astonishing (and, in the end, a little mysterious) is that you walk out of the theatre feeling that you have just watched an Ibsen play. The sinews of Ibsen's obsessions - the past that haunts and destroys the present, inheritance and paternity, the social critique of class and gender, the plutonium-enriched explosion of truth - are boldly translated into present day forms. Stone and Ryan's collaboration, astringently dramaturged by Eamon Flack, is a vital re-imagining.

In the first half the impending tragedy is built patiently, stroke by stroke, in a series of short, apparently naturalistic scenes. On the occasion of his second marriage to his 28-year old secretary, wealthy businessman Werle (John Gaden) welcomes home his estranged son, Gregers (Toby Schmitz). It's soon evident that Gregers bears a grudge against Werle for his treatment of his mother, who suicided after one of Werle's affairs. Gregers meets up with his old friend Hjalmar (Ewen Leslie), who runs a photography studio with his wife Gina (Anita Hegh). They live with their 17-year-old daughter Hedvig (Eloise Mignon) and Hjalmar's father Ekdal (Anthony Phelan), who is showing the first signs of dementia. Ekdal, we discover, has been imprisoned over some scandal to do with Werle's business, a disaster which has had far-reaching effects on his family.

In Ibsen's play, Gregers is a fanatic blinded by idealism, a man irrevocably wounded by his father's corruption who tragically wreaks worse destruction by attempting to right his father's wrongs. He worships Hjalmar's integrity, and claims that he will invigorate his life by revealing the lie at the heart of his marriage, but the results are predictably catastrophic. Here the character of Gregers is more ambivalent: he is a cynic who prides himself on his truthfulness, but the sense that his destructiveness is subconsciously driven by envy of Hjalmar's domestic happiness is palpable. Likewise, the marriage presented in the first half of the play is a good one, as opposed to the sense in Ibsen of an educated man limited by his wife's lower class: Hjalmar's family is chaotic, argumentative, loving and arrestingly real.

Part of this production's power comes from the simplicity, even crudity, of its framing. Here the design is exemplary in how it contributes to the meaning of the performance, from Niklas Pajanti's lighting to Stefan Gregory's sound design, which mics the actors so we hear their bodies as much as see them: the labial sounds of kisses, a deep, shuddering, in-drawn breath. Ralph Myers's set is a kind of terrarium or tank that seals the audience from the performers, a literal fourth wall which heightens the voyeuristic sense that we are transgressively peering into privacies. The window/mirror has almost become a cliche in contemporary theatre, but here the design, perhaps because it so aptly represents the play's dynamics, is fresh and striking. At the top of the set are electronic displays, harking back to the scene titles in Thyestes, that introduce each scene with a specific time date and time.

Harsh, directionless lighting reveals a bare, black, slightly scruffy stage. During the first half of the play, this alternates with blackouts between scenes that turn the glass into a mirror of the audience. The darkness itself becomes symbolic of the hidden truths and conflicts that are hinted in scenes played swiftly across the naked stage. The second half of the play is completely different: the Bach cello pieces that play between scenes in the first half is exploded by crashing electric guitar and the stage is flooded in merciless fluorescent light. Now scenes run together, instead of being meticulously individuated, with characters from different scenes simultaneously on stage.

The simplicity of these elements highlights the complexity and nuance of the text and performances. Stone has the talents of a remarkable cast: there is no performance which is not integral to the success of the work. The mark is hit in every moment, from the cauterised relationship between father and son in Gaden and Schmitz's meetings, to Mignon's bewildered pain as a daughter rejected by the father she adores, to Anthony Phelan's anguished portrayal of a disintegrating mind as Ekdal. The emotional weight of the tragedy falls on Hegh and Leslie, and their performances as two people who deeply love each other, but whose love is unable negotiate the disaster that befalls them, is as painful and real as anything I've seen on stage. Theatre seldom draws a hacksaw across your emotional nerves with such intelligent finesse.

It makes me look forward with even more lively interest to Stone's upcoming adaptation of Brecht's Baal, co-written with Tom Wright, which opens soon at the Malthouse as a co-production with the STC. In part this is because I have even less idea what to expect: it seems to me that Stone is continually lifting the stakes on himself, making work that refreshingly refuses to rest on its laurels. And that's exciting.

Picture: Anita Hegh as Gina in The Wild Duck. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

The Wild Duck, by Simon Stone and Chris Ryan, after Henrik Ibsen. Set by Ralph Myers, costumes by Tess Schofield, lighting by Niklas Pajanti, composition and sound design Stefan Gregory. With Johngaden, Anita Hegh, Ewen Leslie, Eloise Mignon, Anthony Phelan and Toby Schmitz. Belvoir, Sydney. Closed.


Anonymous said...

Was it actually the Bach partita or is that just a guess? If it was, then I do believe I made a rather egregious mistake in my own review (mentioning a cello and viola in an apparently solo-violin piece). Oops. My ignorance of music knows no bounds.

I'm looking forward to Baal now too (I wasn't all that fussed before I saw The Wild Duck), and am now also regretting that I didn't get to see Thyestes. They should move Melbourne and Sydney closer together, methinks.

Can't help but notice that you didn't mention the duck, however!

Alison Croggon said...

Now that you're asking the question, I'm not sure. I thought it was, but I wouldn't bet my life on my musical knowledge. Maybe someone else can clarify...

Anonymous said...

I can only clarify that the word 'labial' is too much for little me.

Alison Croggon said...

You're phobic about lips???

Alison Croggon said...

Note: have amended the music to Bach's cello suites until someone tells me better.

simon said...

I do think the disappearance of Gregers in the second half of this adaptation is a bigger flaw than you do - while the production is brilliantly presented (design, acting, direction), the decision to cut out Gregers being confronted with the cost of his own quest for truth reduces the scale of the drama to just the Ekhdal's personal tragedy. Which isn't what Ibsen's play is ultimately about.

It's also a pity, because Toby Schmitz is so very good in the role (reduced) and, indeed, is front-and-centre in the advertising that Belvoir used as the only cast member on their poster (And yes, I'm aware advertising is not theatre...)

There are also two minor flaws with credibility (for a translation that's aiming at realism - they're nitpicks, but ... probably correctable) - the shotgun is way too big for someone to realistically shoot themselves with, and there's a reference to Gregers and Hjalmar having had the same mobile phone number for 18 years in some of the setup dialogue... which ... well, I'm not entirely sure mobiles were widely available in 1993, and if they are, would a man who's struggling financially like Hjalmar really be able to maintain the same mobile phone number for 18 years??

But you've hit on the strengths of the production, and much of the translation, admirably.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Simon - thanks for your comment. I agree, it's not Ibsen's play. It's another play which draws on Ibsen's work, and this play is about the price of an old but foundational lie in a marriage between two people which has grown to be loving, strong and true (that isn't Ibsen, either). Gregers is another character, and isn't driven by the fanatic idealism that informs Ibsen's character.

Whether this is permissable or not depends on the viewer, I suppose, but the credits do the work for me. It's a perfectly legitimate way to make work. Poets do this kind of thing all the time with other writing - Jack Spicer's After Lorca, say.

It's not naturalistic, surely? Realistic, yes, creating an intensification of reality rather than an attempt at a "slice of life". From the beginning the characters' names (pronounced so beautifully) sat so oddly in the dialogue - as did other details - that it created subtle alienations that meant I never felt I was watching any kind of documentary verities - it constantly reminded me that this was theatre, and the focus was on the emotional realities, which all rang very true for me. The gun didn't bother me at all. The mobile detail did trip me up briefly, mainly because like you I was wondering if mobiles were around in 1993, but I left that behind fairly swiftly and didn't find myself worrying about Hjalmar's ability to pay his phone bill.

Philip said...

The music at the start of the production alternates between the Giga and Ciaccona from Bach's Partita in D minor for solo violin (BWV 1004).