mon 15/07/2024

The Wild Duck, Belvoir Sydney, Barbican Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

The Wild Duck, Belvoir Sydney, Barbican Theatre

The Wild Duck, Belvoir Sydney, Barbican Theatre

Heartbreaking Ibsen adaptation mixes naturalism and forensic examination

Anita Hegh as Gina Ekdal 'simply and quietly tears you apart' Heidrun Loehr

Ibsen cast a cruel eye on the characters of his most relentlessly symbolic play – wild ducks wounded or domesticated by fate or character. They speak or behave unsympathetically, for the most part, yet the actors must make us care for them. Simon Stone and Chris Ryan sidestep the problem by not only updating the action but writing their own script on the subject, reinventing some of the motivations while keeping the essence.

True to some of Ibsen’s main points it may not be, but this is heartbreaking drama, so truthfully acted it would make a stone weep.

Most of the key situations remain. Richard Piper’s profoundly touching old Ekdal is still the ruined hunter, albeit one with Alzheimer’s or dementia, who keeps a mock forest in the attic, wanders around with his beloved wild duck – a real one in this production – and, when told that the high woods where he used to live have mostly been cut down, remarks as in the original that "the forest will have its revenge". The five other main characters – Ibsen’s complete dramatis personae has been whittled by two-thirds – keep their names and their basic situations.

If this all sounds naturalistic, it absolutely is in the characterisations

There’s less to dislike, though. Dan Wyllie as Gregers Werle, son of the man who came out of the old scandal, unlike business partner Ekdal, unscathed, has less of the moral high-grounder who thinks he’s saving lives by revealing unwanted truths and more of the jealous friend about him. The victim of his revelation, Ekdal’s son Hjalmar, may not have succeeded in life but he doesn’t seem the deluded idiot of Ibsen’s original; his wife is anything but simple, their daughter more a real, open-eyed teenager than a gushing ingénue whose illusions are destroyed.

Simon Stone by Vicki SkarrattThe actors playing the Ekdals make a seemingly normal family shatteringly real. Piper’s quiet moment in the sun comes in his revelation to granddaughter Hedvig about how his wife left him for love and returned for a last few contented years. Brendan Cowell’s Hjalmar seems so low-key happy that when Greggers rips apart his life the explosions are terrifying (shame about the mic distortions, more on which anon). Anita Hegh’s Gina simply and quietly tears you apart. And Sara West as the clever teenager is totally credible, her bewildered response to the family breakdown in her questions about sex the point at which the tears begin to flow. Even Ibsen’s villain of the piece, hard-hearted Werle Senior, has dignity and the possibility of true love in a marriage to the 28-year-old secretary we never see in John Gaden’s quietly effective portrayal. Oh, and "Lucky Ducky" is sublime.

If this all sounds naturalistic, it absolutely is in the characterisations. But Stone as director (pictured above by Vicki Skarratt) enriches the context by what he calls "a framework that is voyeuristic but also forensic". Confrontations and family scenes are played out in a glass box, designed by Ralph Myers and tellingly (and variously) lit by Niklas Pajanti. Time passes on a clock which jumps forward in total blackouts between scenes. I thought Stone was going to fudge the crucial point at which Gregers tells Hjalmar the truth about his marriage – Ibsen lets it take place offstage as the two go off for a walk – by having him blurt it out in jealous anger at Hjalmar’s drunken revelation of contentment down the pub. But no, blackout, jump to Hjalmar’s disillusioned return; the tension that can be so unbearable in Ibsen has another turn of the screw here. 

Timescale and sense of place dissolve when normal life is suddenly fractured. The awful denouement is a shocking gunshot offstage just when marital reconciliation seems possible, but there’s none of Ibsen’s awkward immediate aftermath; here, in what seems like a homage to Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage, we jump forward to a beautifully understated epilogue where Gina and Hjalmar meet a year later, now outside the glass box.

The use of between-the-scenes music – bowling-along Bach solo violin to begin with, loud rock for the turning point, choral mass for the climax – is brilliant, but too loud for the last two stretches; ditto the amplification of the voices, which distorts the shouting in disconcerting echo-chamber. I stand corrected on the source for this: no reflection on the Barbican sound technicians, to whom apologies for an earlier misattribution, since the company brought its technical crew along. The problem should have been rectified over the run.

I’ve not been this moved by Ibsen since Janet McTeer’s Nora in A Doll’s House, one of the great performances one gets to see in a lifetime, so that should tell you how fine an achievement this is. Don’t miss it.



Ghosts, Duchess Theatre (2010). Iain Glen makes directorial debut with a straightforward take starring Lesley Sharp

The Master Builder, Almeida Theatre (2010). Passions blow hot and cold in this uneven production starring Gemma Arterton and Stephen Dillane

Emperor and Galilean, National Theatre (2011). Power and pace help to exhume Ibsen's Romano-Christian epic starring Andrew Scott

Judgement Day, The Print Room (2011). Ibsen's last play has its issues but emerges strongly in new adaptation with Michael Pennington

The Lady From the Sea, Rose Theatre, Kingston (2012). Joely Richardson takes on the Ibsen heroine her mother and sister made their own

A Doll's House, Young Vic (2012). Period setting yields a contemporary tragedy adapted by Simon Stephens and starring Hattie Morahan

Hedda Gabler, Old Vic (2012). Ibsen's heroine draws new depths from the West End's sweetheart Sheridan Smith (pictured)

Love's Comedy, Orange Tree Theatre (2012). Early Ibsen finds the playwright in his awkward adolescence

A Doll's House, Royal Exchange (2013). Ibsen in the round loses none of its power to cast a spell

Public Enemy, Young Vic (2013). The horrors of local politics still chime in Richard Jones's queasy production of an Ibsen masterpiece

Ghosts, Almeida Theatre (2013). Richard Eyre and Lesley Manville shine light into Ibsen's dark thriller of family misfortunes

Peer Gynt, Théâtre National de Nice (2014). Irina Brook's song-and-dance Ibsen entertains, but misses the darker shades

The Wild Duck, Belvoir Sydney (2014). Heartbreaking adaptation mixes naturalism and forensic examination

Little Eyolf, Almeida Theatre (2015). Strong women and one weak man in Ibsen's swift study of isolation and guilt

The Master Builder, Old Vic (2016). Ralph Fiennes stars in Ibsen's unsettling mix of the real and the supernatural

Hedda Gabler, National Theatre (2016). Ivo van Hove makes an uneven Southbank debut

The actors playing the Ekdals make a seemingly normal family shatteringly real


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters