FringeReview UK 2018
Robert Icke’s adapts and directs Ibsen’s 1884 tragi-comedy The Wild Duck at the Almeida. From a stripped-brick space Bunny Christie’s set ghosts-in Erkol and tat furnishings. Here Ibsen’s stage direction for different natural light in each scene via skylight is inverted by Elliot Griggs: to literally brilliant effect. Tom Gibbons provides 1960s French chanson on scratchy LPs and noises off.
If you’ve ever wondered what a post-show Q&A would look like run inside the play itself, look no further. If you’re a purist you’d be tempted to run from Robert Icke’s adaptation of Ibsen’s 1884 tragi-comedy The Wild Duck at the Almeida which he also directs. That would be a pity. It moves from one to the other, from an actors’ stripped rehearsal space to an additive, more naturalistic set as the play proceeds, though set in the present; with the revelation of a fairytale forest loft.
In a work famed for being densely-argued, here deconstruction is reversed, almost, as Icke creates an exo-skeletal frame where Ibsen at least takes over from him. Kevin Harvey’s uncompromising truth-teller re-named Gregory Woods starts with a mobile phone spiel morphing to a lecture on what constitutes a true adaptation from a translation – unnecessarily defensive if you believe in it. Other characters periodically step out to take up the mic, so there’s a chorus: ‘In 1884, Ibsen wrote The Wild Duck…’ ‘End of scene’ gets announced this way too.
Ibsen’s uneasy play about the consequences of truth-telling goes one further than his just-previous Enemy of the People. Icke pulls out the ribs to make the implicit bloody obvious, and loses irony. But he adds an agency to put-upon Gina Ekdal and her daughter Hedwig, that should stay.
In a drama pitting father-and-son Werle (now Woods) against each other, with son Gregory or nickname ‘Gregers’ (Ibsen’s name in fact) on a mission to disabuse James Ekdal of what’s happened to his father and wife because of his own dad, Icke’s emphasised the centrality of two quiet protagonists.
Unusually for Ibsen, women are somewhat sidelined from commentary in a dialectic-led tussle. It might be one reason for the work’s infrequent staging, despite being cited by some as Ibsen’s greatest. Perhaps transitional problem-play might summarise it. It remains astonishing.
Those who saw Ella Hickson’s The Writer in the same space this year will feel at home: from a stripped-brick space Bunny Christie’s set ghosts-in Erkol and tat furnishings with vaguely contemporary features, including a carpet delivered and hoovered in the live interval by Gina and Hedwig. Backstage there’s a dark room (Hedwig pores over this) working sink and a standard lamp.
It’s all the more potent for Gina’s reminding Gregory that Hedwig’s slowly going blind from a hereditary fault James’ mother. But that’s not unique; that’s why Gregory’s here.
Light and loss is key. Here Ibsen’s stage direction for different natural light in each scene via skylight is inverted by Elliot Griggs: to literally brilliant effect. The exasperated Gina strips off the shade and almost blinds truth-telling Gregory with it. Tom Gibbons provides 1960s French chanson on scratchy LPs and noises off. Everything with the Erkols is retro or fake – the forest distracted Francis now shoots tame rabbits in, yet spares the rescued duck. So a deathly quiet punctuated by diatribe and gunshot becomes an ambient family home.
Harvey’s Gregory has vocal clarity, a rationale though unlike some productions he doesn’t simmer with the almost religious fervour some bring; that’s welcome. Icke has turned his role into an ideologically-driven one; that’s not Gregory either. Harvey plays a forensic obsessive more than anything else.
Gregory or ‘Gregers’ as Icke takes from the original, arrives back after self-exile, specifically to see his old friend James Ekdal (Edward Hogg) after fifteen years. Ekdal’s now a specialist in retro-style photography, who’s embarrassed that his own father Nicholas Farrell’s Francis Ekdal has strayed distractedly onto the scene. Disgraced for obscure accounting failures in the Woods’ business Francis is kept afloat by a menial copying job by Gregory’s father Charles (Nicholas Day). Farrell’s rather appealing granddad-figure counterpoints Hedwig in pathos just as he salutes her, literally.
We’re normally left fathoming why Gregory confronts his father who emerges singularly – the scene’s set nominally in his house full of the a plush contrast to subsequent scenes, though it’s a small loss. Here though ideology has turned Gregory into a stock Shavian son kicking capitalism over, but without Shaw’s humour. Day’s Charles traces an arc from unctuous wine-discerner to a refusal to whine at the end when repudiated, incredibly gently and regretfully by someone he loves.
On the way Charles has already acquired a new wife Anan Sowerby (warmly played by Andrea Hall) who in her brief scena makes an impact with Gina. It’s a rare act of accommodation where absolutes assail them.
Subsequent insemination of ‘Gregers’ poison – he takes a room the Ekdals badly need to let, despite Gina’s objections – is offset by the warmth this production gives to family scenes. Icke wants us to believe that even near the end there’s a real redemptive chance.
From here despite the objections of Rick Warden’s skirling Dr Relling who rightly analyses his motives, it’s recognizably a riven world. Relling, here conflated with his drunk companion Molvik, makes no headway warning Hogg’s Ekdal of Gregory’s danger. Warden makes less of the drunk, more the contemptuous though ultimately moral cynic.
Hogg points up the slightly childlike in Ekdal, the man who’ll never complete let alone patent his great invention, whose self-regard and blindness to the disasters of eye-opening is matched by actions a but muted here. Even when denouncing he still scoffs breakfast. But Hogg’s occasional puppyishness his affection for Gina and Hedwig is allowed the play it deserves; it’s well underscored here.
This being contemporary, Lyndsey Marshal’s Gina has nothing of having been ‘in service’ indeed worked for the Woods and now determines to be the photographer her husband hardly bothers to be. Dealing with husband James, Hedwig, Gregory, Francis, Relling, Anna or, Marshal’s warmth, exasperation and keener eloquence makes her a Gina to believe in. Particularly in the climactic meeting with Charles.
Gregory’s role in smashing through all this is studded with Icke’s own determination to create a spectacle that almost distracts us but not him from asking crucial questions – ones Relling warns will harm Hedwig. So the handbag in a box representing the duck is replaced spectacularly by Hedwig pulling out something else just before the interval. Schrodinger’s Duck?
Icke’s treatment of Hedwig mean that Grace Doherty and Clara Read who alternate the role have more to do than several other characters, and deserve naming for their consummate work. Again considering the climax and point it’s almost mandatory.
Ibsen’s essential re increasingly left alone till the coda. Gregory’s admonitions aren’t just to James Charles or Gina for isntance. Having created one crisis he suggests to Hedwig that making a sacrifice is a way to redeem things. There’s certainly a flying of bloodied feathers though it’s not quite what you think, though another small coup.
The climax and aftermath’s intact. Icke can’t help being icky with the end though, drawing out morals and conclusions not originally there. That’s a pity: Ice does so much to warm and humanize the paly that a return to deconstruction and postlude however brief sees unnecessary.
Icke’s consummate Oresteia, Mary Stuart and yes the 1970s-Shabitat Vanya of 2016 should prove enduring. This adaptation like the play itself, raises more problems than it solves. If you don’t know The Wild Duck this isn’t an ideal introduction. But when will be? It’s not often staged and since Almeida and Donmar Ibsens often provide the keenest revivals, this forensic raking-over of Ibsen proves at least as stimulating. It’s perplexing in a way similar to how 1884 audiences would receive it. You should be shocked.