Almeida Theatre, London ****
Review by Carole Woddis of performance seen Oct 25, 2018:
Robert Icke is far too clever a theatre magician for it to be accidental. But there are moments when his updated, deconstructed and completely reimagined version of Ibsen’s Wild Duck comes over as a bit of a lecture in keeping with one of the Almeida’s former lives as a lecture theatre for the Islington Literary and Scientific Society.
Ibsen would have loved that. The building also housed a library, museum and a laboratory, fitting in with a loose idea one might have of much of Ibsen’s work falling into the category of laboratory-style investigation or exploration of society and the individual.
Around the time Ibsen was writing The Wild Duck, it became used for concerts and public meetings – a perfect meeting place I’d have thought for a production of An Enemy of the People.
But back to The Wild Duck! The ghost of Ibsen is much invoked in Icke’s iconoclastic version. Ibsen’s presence is deeply embedded for all the present version’s appearance as a contemporary reading. Indeed he’s constantly summoned, an interjecting comparison in the action with events going on in Ibsen’s own personal life.
Borrowing perhaps a little also from The Wooster Group, characters even spend a good deal of time addressing us from a hand-held mic – a deconstructive tool much favoured by the Woosters and other radical theatre practitioners.
Gregory Woods (restyled from the original Gregers Werle) is particularly prone to this. But then Gregory (a fine Kevin Harvey) turns out to be a bit of a preacher anyway, dangerously self-righteous in pursuing the `truth’ at any price and delighting in spelling out, very precisely and clearly in case we’re not quite getting it, parallels between truth and lies, and theatre and illusion.
Indeed, if you strip away the domestic wrangles – which are considerable – between the Ekdals and the Woods, the fathers/son interplay – also weighty and in Icke’s version, a heavy emphasis on the psychological – we’re left with our old friend, `the living lie’: with how impossible it is for human beings to live with reality and how, to keep going to reach and sustain some level of happiness, shielding ourselves from `the truth’ with `lies’ may be our only salvation.
And in the end, Icke and maybe Ibsen’s Wild Duck is a play about the stories we tell ourselves, the narratives we weave of our lives to prevent the pain stopping us in our tracks.
Icke’s Wild Duck takes a while to get there – nearly three hours – and on the way tickles us with slightly over-fanciful tricks. But my goodness, ultimately it lands a huge emotional punch.
Four years ago, Australia’s Belvoir Company and its remarkable director/adaptor, Simon Stone (he of last year’s famous Young Vic/ Billie Piper Yerma) brought their speedy, brutally stripped back 75 minute version to the Barbican – a production that left this spectator dumb-struck.
Ultra-modern in style, everything was set within a glass case, a contemporary version if you like of Ibsen’s Naturalism, as if human beings were being examined under a microscope. Stone emphasised the deviousness of Gregers’ father, freighted with Murdoch-like ambition and ruthlessness.
Icke, by contrast, puts forward a far more benign reading, one that rather wonderfully allows every character its share of flaws and positive points. Even Nicholas Day’s Charles (Gregory’s father), responsible for the ruin of Ekdal’s father, is allowed remorse and genuine love towards the woman who bore his child: Ekdal’s own dear wife, Gina (Lyndsey Marshal).
Together, James Ekdal (Edward Hogg) and Gina with the young Hedwig, have built a love-nest of a family, if all too self-consciously so here. When the whirlwind of `truth’ starts to reap its terrible harvest, the love nest falls like a pack of cards.
Theatrically, it is devastating, exposing James’s immaturity and in Icke’s reading allowing Gina a real agency in the management of her own life. That the revelations set in motion result in their adored daughter’s sacrifice puts almost the final touches to the play’s powerful climax.
But Icke also adds a coda in which guilt strikes tragically, as it has throughout the play.
Though Icke’s didacticism can be irritating, this Wild Duck undoubtedly pulls its modern audience into Ibsen’s tense, spiralling emotions to powerful effect.
Beautifully played all round, Nicholas Farrell’s Ekdal father, living in a dream world of fantasy in his forest strewn attic brings a touching vulnerability to a man beaten down by life whilst Nicholas Day’s Charles carries both bluster and even a quite moving remorse and genuine love for Gina.
Rick Warden as the Ekdal’s drunken tenant and Andrea Hall as Charles’ new love bring just the right amount of pragmatic realism. But it is Hogg’s desperately damaged James Ekdal, Lyndsey Marshal, Grace Doherty as the adored Hedwig and Kevin Harvey who carry the weight of the evening.
Marshal has never done anything finer – tender, watchful and strong, creating a delicately woven relationship with Doherty’s Hedwig, all the more heart-wrenching for its loss.
A radical reworking that despite its irritations, triumphs.
The Wild Duck
By Henrik Ibsen
In a new version creation by Robert Icke
Charles Woods: Nicholas Day
Francis Ekdal: Nicholas Farrell
Anna Sowerby: Andrea Hall
Gregory Woods: Kevin Harvey
James Ekdal: Edward Hogg
Gina Ekdal: Lyndsey Marshal
John Relling: Rick Warden
Hedwig Ekdal: Grace Doherty, Clara Read
Adaptation & Direction: Robert Icke
Design: Bunny Christie
Light: Elliot Griggs
Sound: Tom Gibbons
Casting: Julia Horan CDG
Costume Supervisor: Claire Wardroper
Fight Direction: Kevin McCurdy
Resident Director: Denzel Westley-Sanderson
Design Assistant: Verity Sadler
First perf of this revival of The Wild Duck at Almeida Theatre, Oct 15, 2018. Running time 2hrs 55 incl 20 min interval.
To Dec 1, 2018