The Wild Duck, after Ibsen, Almeida Theatre 15 Oct - 01 Dec 2018
Director: Robert Icke
Cast: Nicholas Day, Nicholas Farrell, Kevin Harvey, Edward Hogg, Lyndsey Marshal, Grace Doherty, Clara Read
Photos: Manuel Harlan
Working with Ibsen’s nineteenth century classic, Robert Icke offers a contemporary play about the effect of truth and lies that structure our lives and the way we like to present ourselves to the world. James and Gina Ekdal are seemingly happily married with a daughter, Hedwig, who is about to turn thirteen. They live in an apartment with James’ father, an incurable, but likeable, alcoholic. Enter a friend from the past, Gregory, whose own father destroyed James’. Gregory, who fled when his mother committed suicide, has come to undo his own father. And so, the web of truth and lies begins to unfurl ending in disaster. Scholars of Ibsen can unravel the similarities of the original and this curious but compelling homage.
In no uncertain terms, we are told by Gregory who begins as a narrator, to suspend disbelief in the age-old tradition of watching a performance. Gregory and subsequent narrators use a microphone to speak directly to the audience. It’s an amusing ploy, though a tad educational. Every now and then, they give asides, end scenes, or explain tit-bits about Ibsen’s life and his illegitimate child.
Still, no matter how well we are instructed by the narrator, suspending disbelief is difficult at times. In the context of nineteenth century Norway, the setting and some of the twists and turns in the labyrinth of family ties might be more plausible. The contemporary setting is bizarre, for a start, in a twenty-first century context. The play is set in an ill-equipped apartment above which lies a forest of old Xmas trees which houses a wild duck (beloved by Hedwig) and allows her deluded grandfather to shoot pigeons. The mixing of modern gadgets with nineteenth century props doesn’t always fit. Are the characters contemporary types who use laptops and cameras (albeit film stock) or oldie-worldy folk who delight in butter and brandish guns? Do illegitimate children and Lords of the Manor fit a twenty-first century urban narrative? More to the point, the hidden history which undermines these relationships is less punchy in a modern context no matter how much suspension of disbelief is asked. Need the lies have been perpetuated from the beginning?
“Scholars of Ibsen can unravel the similarities of the original and this curious but compelling homage.”
In the end, the intensity of emotions powerfully portrayed by the notable cast, wins the day. When Gregory confronts his father and when James finally faces Gina, Icke's study of Ibsen is better. The ensuing tragedy underscores the theme of “life lies” and how we indulge in stories and how we wish our lives to be seen by others. The Wild Duck after Ibsen asks - and leaves us perplexed by the answer - is it better to tell the truth or let sleeping dogs lie?