It’s rare that I embark upon a theatrical performance feeling deeply unsure about it and end by giving it a standing ovation, but that’s exactly what happened with the Almeida’s production of The Wild Duck. This classic Ibsen play has been adapted by director Robert Icke and while it differs from the original in a literal way, it seemed to me to have captured the spirit of exactly what Ibsen was trying to say.
The play begins with the return of the idealistic Gregory Woods (Kevin Harvey) to his hometown, where he is reacquainted with his old friend James Ekdal (Edward Hogg). Passionate to the point of evangelism about the importance of telling the truth, he decides that his friend must know that his daughter, Hester, is not his: Ekdal’s wife, Gina, had an affair with Woods’ father Charles several years ago, and Woods senior incidentally wants to settle a large amount of money on Hester.
Meanwhile, Ekdal’s well-meaning father, Francis, suggests to Hester that, to prove her love for her father, she kill the thing that she most loves: the wild duck she has been caring for. However, Hester decides to go one better, with tragic consequences.
The action begins on a bare stage, with Woods speaking directly to the audience, talking about Ibsen and his work, musing on the importance of truth in our current age. The microphone is used by almost all of the characters throughout the play, as they comment on the action and deliver asides to the audience. It’s use sometimes leads to conflict, as characters try to grab the mike off one another, eager to have their voice heard. I really didn’t like this at first – shouldn’t theatre show, not tell? If you want to put in asides, shouldn’t you write a novel instead? As the play went on, however, I began to see the microphone as a conduit for the truth, as opposed to the characters’ words to one another.
Bunny Christie’s set, which at the beginning of the play is more or less a bare stage, gradually fills up and takes on colour and form. First the Ekdals’ living room is inhabited by carpet, sofa and table, then, as a final flourish, the curtain rises to reveal, at the top of the stage, an indoor forest, lit with fairy lights. As the set becomes more ‘real’ so do the characters seem to be. I worked out the ending well in advance, but this didn’t prevent me almost forgetting to breathe as I waited for tragedy to strike.
This production takes risks and they pay off: this is one of the most memorable and powerful productions I’ve seen this year.
Oh, and there’s an actual live duck.