Almeida Theatre, London – until 1 December 2018
Robert Icke’s run at the Almeida Theatre has been game-changing. Most recently his Hamlet with Andrew Scott was probably the best of the decade and his lead-swapping Mary Stuart with Lia Williams and Juliet Stevenson a show to treasure. These productions were special because they convinced the audience they were seeing well-known texts for the first time, both an incredibly difficult thing to do and a sure sign of real innovation. Icke’s new production of The Wild Duck is bold and controversial but delivers an interpretation that strikes home very hard indeed.
Icke’s approach is to present the play as explicit fiction, with interludes of narrative reflection from the characters including discussion of Ibsen’s own life, with its revealing parallels to the action. The play, although sometimes regarded as Ibsen’s masterpiece, is much less performed or known in Britain than, for example, Hedda Gabler. There is, therefore, less expectation around the play and more room for radical presentation, although there is plenty of scope to offend doyens of theatre criticism.
The play presents two incomplete families, darkly and fatally entwined. The production begins with the house lights up and a bare stage, the actors addressing the audience with a microphone. Almost imperceptibly, the show acquires a set and morphs into a traditional production, but the direct focus on people creating characters by talking to one another establishes an intensity which runs through the remainder of the evening and highlights the roles in which everyone seems trapped.
The play is full of rich parts, and the cast is more than up to the task. Edward Hogg’s James Ekdal (character names are updated, and the cast pruned) is prickly, immature and self-destructive. The underrated Lyndsey Marshal is heart-breaking as his wife Gina, capable and determined mother with a secret she knows will tear down her life as soon as it is exposed. Nicholas Farrell is perfect as Ekdal’s drunken fantasist father, a lovely grandfather and a terrible father.
Perhaps the stand-out performance comes from Kevin Harvey as Gregory Woods, sane on the surface but entirely unhinged not far beneath, his peculiar idealism a danger to everyone. The only character in the play who can really see what’s going on is Rick Warden’s doctor, Relling, who drinks to avoid the truth but still knows right from wrong. ‘The Wild Duck’ needs a very strong young performer to play the Ekdal’s daughter Hedwig, and Clara Read (on the night I saw the show) has the exactly the right combination of insight and vulnerability.
The play concerns truth and lies: whether the truth is a more destructive force than the lies that allow us to managed our lives. Icke brings in Ibsen’s own biography, revealing that he fathered an illegitimate daughter whom he supported until she was thirteen, then never contacted again. Hedwig, whose thirteenth birthday is the play’s tragic climax, is misled about her real parents. The conflation of a writer’s own life with their fiction is risky, these events seem particularly telling.
While apparently distancing the audience, the production opens up Ibsen’s work for closer inspection and brings us very close indeed to the characters. The result is eccentric and, as technique, probably unrepeatable. However, it results in a spell-binding evening in which the anguish of the characters as they wrench apart stays with us, long after we leave the theatre.