Almeida Theatre, London – until 1 December 2018
Is it better to live in a lie, a happy story, or to admit the messy sinful truth? Should you assume that every person you meet is the worst part of themselves, even if there’s evidence of that worst?
This is Ibsen, so you know it won’t end too well. If there is a poisoned secret it will come out, if a gun it will be fired, and the sins (and sicknesses) of the fathers will fall on the children. There will also be a metaphor, in this case a wild duck kept tame in the attic alongside a few rabbits, pigeons and old Christmas trees. Old Ekdal, broken by his business partner’s treachery and a prison term, likes to go up there and play at hunting. The duck was winged one day by the wicked partner, and legend says that when wounded, a wild duck dives deep and holds on to the weeds until it drowns. But a dog retrieved it, and Ekdal’s son James keeps it because his daughter Hedwig loves it. They’re all wounded, clinging on in the deep. All their stories are broken-winged.
Director Robert Icke, most ingenious of re-framers and refreshers, presents this classic of pain and lies with a touch of meta-theatre as Kevin Harvey’s Greg – son of the corrupt rich partner – arrives on the bare stage with a microphone to inform us, with a touch of patronage, that when he wrote it in 1884 Henrik Ibsen had a secret illegitimate child, so this underlies his sense of lies growing like tumours.
He adds that since the original play is in Norwegian and all translations are a sort of untruth, there is no point us expecting the ‘true’ version. Props are at first picked up from the front row; at various moments he, or other characters, will use that mic again to offer bits of narrative or stage directions. Cards on the table: I get a bit irritable at such devices, and didn’t quite buy the parallel between deep family lies and theatre itself.
But it pays off, not least because Greg proves to be a walking truth-bomb himself, and in the final moment gets the contumely such irresponsible truth-tellers sometimes deserve. And the emotional core of the play is beautifully, tenderly, sadly rendered: true to the playwright, with all Ibsen’s fin-de-siecle desperation to blow apart 19c secrecies and grope painfully towards a more honest society. Most of it – as items of furniture turn up – take us to the household of the ruined Ekdal’s son James, his wife Gina and their daughter, the enchanting and beloved twelve year old Hedwig (on press night Clara Read, superb).
Edward Hogg gives James a brittle energy: fragile, eager, optimistic but wounded and ineffectual, resenting the secret subsidy from his father’s old enemy and trying not to believe in it. Lyndsey Marshal is superb as Gina: she has her own secret, indicated by occasional malapropisms that create an odd unease. When she says “men need something to abstract themselves with” and is corrected to “distract”, we pick up the other meaning. Nicholas Farrell is touching as the old ruined hunter abstracting himself from reality with the gun in the attic. The strength and love of family, soon to be shattered by revelations and heredity, is intensely affecting, the intermittent scene-change grabbing of the microphone taking nothing from its illiusion of reality. Actually, it is even more poignant to feel that the players are helplessly manipulated by Ibsen, the way we all are by life. The rising tension near the end is almost unbearable.
And although until the final five minutes one might think designer Bunny Christie got away with providing nothing but a few chairs and tables, you eat your words when a black screen rises on the world above, and the bitterest of fairylights.
box office 0207 359 4404 to 1 Dec