Kate Tierney considers the modern twists and formal turns of Robert Icke’s latest adaptation of Ibsen’s classic, The Wild Duck, at the Almeida Theatre.
An actor using a handheld microphone asks us to turn off our phones: we wouldn’t miss them for a short while – ‘anyway, it’s all lies,’ he concludes. We’re to learn that his character is Gregory Woods, returning home to his father’s house after a mysterious absence of 15 years. The house lights remain on for a while, and so we are alerted to the unusual way that our suspension of disbelief and Ibsen’s original version of The Wild Duck are going to be manipulated during Robert Icke’s production.
The mic is used throughout by various actors to traverse the fourth wall. Sometimes it’s done to slightly comic effect, on other occasions for straightforward and lengthy exposition, and elsewhere to explain things that might have better been left unsaid. We see this when James Ekdal (Edward Hogg), who has just been reunited with his friend Gregory (Kevin Harvey), explains that his own character ‘felt out of place … a feeling that’s got its roots deep in class or wealth’. James has been invited to a party at the home of Gregory’s father and he is socially adrift, but the audience could have easily observed this or been left to draw their own conclusions.
Gregory had left home when his father had not helped James’ father avoid a ten-year prison sentence for financial fraud at the time of the general economic collapse, thus pulling us sharply out of the nineteenth century. The basic plot of the original Wild Duck is transplanted more or less unchanged, except in this adaptation the central metaphor is really spelt out to us, at times to rather irritating effect.
Unable to reconcile with his father, Gregory rents a room from James who lives happily with his wife Gina, their 12-year-old ebullient yet watchful daughter Hedvig, and his father, Francis, who hunts rabbits in the loft and helps his granddaughter look after her wounded, wild duck. James, working as a photographer, helped more than he realises by his wife, and ‘working’ on an elusive invention that he thinks a lot about, will find his world shattered by Gregory’s unrelenting search for truth and honesty.
Non-contentious biographical information about Ibsen which we’d been told initially, is later supplemented by a revelation about his conduct towards his own illegitimate child. Like a certain character in the play, the Norwegian playwright was guilty of paying off a pregnant serving girl. But Icke does not choose to reveal this through another meta-theatrical microphone scene. Rather, the issue of Hedvig’s paternity is left for the audience to resolve and realise. Thus the debate of whether to separate the art from the artist rages on.
Aside from Icke’s unconventional breakdown of the fourth wall, the performances are excellent. Lyndsey Marshal as Gina Ekdal is particularly good at conveying a vast range of emotions as her character copes with managing the finances, bolstering up her exacting husband and trying to fend off the imminent doom that Gregory’s ingress represents. Nicholas Farrell’s Francis Ekdal is very well drawn, and the grandfather/granddaughter relationship is touchingly and economically portrayed. When James and his family break into jubilant dancing we are shown a striking foil to the disharmony that follows.
As the action unfolds, Icke’s production edges towards the naturalism of Ibsen’s original. This formal shift is paralleled in both stage and costume design. The backdrop of the Almeida’s Spartan wall pushes Bunny Christie’s initially minimal set into sharp focus. And even the rehearsal-like clothes gradually change, whilst realistic props converge towards realism rather as a photograph develops.
Other changes are apparent with Icke’s omission of the original Act divisions. Abandoning this structure ensures that the pace never slackens. However, we’re wrong-footed just before the interval, but by a wondrously magical moment. More magic is to follow when we get a sight of the contents of the loft. Such moments prove Icke’s modernization of Ibsen’s original to be, at times, theatrically efficacious.
Sound Designer Tom Gibbons’ conventional use of the record player is followed rather more strikingly when the amplified and jarring sound of white noise, or the needle playing in an empty groove, reflects the chaos unfolding towards the conclusion of the play. It’s difficult to listen to as well as to witness. The ecological joins the political and in doing so diverges from the original play (Ibsen’s notes made it clear that he intended it to remain rooted in the family and not to stray into larger, political matters). Here, on the other hand, Gregory is depicted as an out and out leftie, blind to the fallout from his single mindedness.
Despite the over-explication, this adaption (by a highly-regarded director after all) wrought well the major themes from the source material. We emerge to ponder love and its illusions, self-knowledge, moral responsibility, truth of course, and all forms of blindness.
The Wild Duck will be shown at the Almeida until 1 December. For more information, click here.