tue 18/06/2024

The Wild Duck, Almeida Theatre review - meta, merciless and altogether brilliant | reviews, news & interviews

The Wild Duck, Almeida Theatre review - meta, merciless and altogether brilliant

The Wild Duck, Almeida Theatre review - meta, merciless and altogether brilliant

Robert Icke reaches a new career plateau with his Ibsen adaptation

Family in freefall: the Woods clan in 'The Wild Duck'Manuel Harlan

Beware the smile that Edward Hogg wears like a shield in the opening scenes of The Wild Duck, the Ibsen play refashioned into the most scalding production in many a year by Robert Icke, here in career-surpassing form. Playing James Ekdal, the photographer previously known as Hjalmar, Hogg disarms you from the outset with a bonhomie just waiting to snap.

By the play's end, there's precious little evidence of mirth given the cumulative wreckage on view: building upon his forays into Shakespeare, Schiller, Chekhov, and the Greeks, Icke propels Ibsen's 1884 text straight into the heart of darkness, and I defy anyone to emerge from the Almeida unscathed. 

Not that the adapter-director doesn't exhibit a characteristic playfulness along the way; Icke here more than ever seems to be in conversation with the aesthetic of the American director Sam Gold, whose recent and divisive Broadway revival of The Glass Menagerie is suggested more than once. Playing with the raising and lowering of the houselights, apparent incursions into the audience, and historical intonations into the microphone (Ibsen, we're helpfully informed, is dead), Icke embraces familiar "meta" touchstones only to move towards a sort of searing naturalism. Embedded in Icke's free-wheeling but deeply faithful take on the play are various debates of sorts on fake news that extend as far as putting Ibsen's own life on trial as a kind of torch-paper to his art: everyone here functions at some level as a literary critic, starting with a youngest character who voices a direct knowledge of subtext. 

Kevin Harvey in 'The Wild Duck'Small wonder, given the pervasive mercilessness, that someone may announce the end of a scene only for another to shout out in anguish, "No!" There's none of the safety net allowed by art in this vision of Ibsen's play, which connects up so fully to the malignancy of life that the cast aren't the only ones who appear moist-eyed by the time we reach the curtain call. 

Those pondering the ad hoc repertory company that Icke has gathered to him in recent years may be delighted to note some new recruits to his way of working, all to entirely fruitful results. One can only begin to imagine what it costs these actors to go to so raw a place at every performance, whether or not that character raises his or her voice. Yes, it's shocking when "the young prince" (note the Hamlet imagery) that is the would-be inventor James smashes a microphone in frustration, but it's no less disturbing to hear the uber-cynical Relling (Rick Warden, terrific) talk matter-of-factly of people taking to megaphones so as "to scream their rightness to the world". (Hello, Mr Trump.) 

These contemporary connections always exist in the service of the dual family dramas that overlap to ruinous effect on the way to an ending that poses grievous questions about how much truth one can bear. On the one hand, James and Gina (Lyndsey Marshal), his wife of twelve years, are consumed by love for their young, ailing daughter Hedwig (Clara Read, an astonishing newcomer and part of a role-share with Grace Doherty), who happens to be the person most devoted to that eponymous duck. But in a play where, as per the Ibsen norm, the past threatens at every turn to overwhelm the present, the weight of accusation hangs heavily over Gina, who cracks under the assault. Marshal magnificently rises to the challenge of the monologue late-on where Gina is seen wishing for a new start against near-impossible odds. (Divorce, she announces, isn't ideal, since she doesn't want her barely pubescent daughter getting two sets of Christmas presents.) 

Hedwig, in turn, has the misfortune to fall under the sway of Gregory Woods (Gregers Werle in the original), whom Kevin Harvey (pictured above) plays with a caustic insistence on the hidden meaning of things that allows him to see the truth but also to use it to terrible and destructive ends. (Not for nothing does he get spat at.) Beset with serious father issues   his own, hugely wealthy father (played by a coolly stentorian Nicholas Day) is first seen holding forth on Chambertin wine from an aisle seat in the stalls  – Gregory is the vagabond son returned home to avenge the past who in turn can't help but sully the present. (Hogg, Warden, and Marshal pictured below)Edward Hogg, Rick Warden, and Lyndsey Marshal in 'The Wild Duck'For once, Ibsen's symbol-making sits easily within a landscape where James, for instance, substitutes "blooming" for the too-brazen "bloody"  – which presumably is no bad thing given the bloodletting that will arrive in time. And Icke as ever charts astonishing shifts in mood, whether the characters are seen breaking into an impromptu dance or giving themselves over to a Sandy Denny song ("By the Time it Gets Dark"): a lull before the calamitous storm. Yes, someone produces a laptop, but modern appliances exist only to elide the distance between Ibsen's time and ours. Bunny Christie's startling set, too, builds from the Peter Brook-style empty space cited in the published text to reveal hidden multitudes that attest to a dream world hovering on the verge of nightmare. Between this and Company across town, Christie is having quite a season.

Every single artist here is following their fearless director's lead in revitalising probably the only Ibsen play that has done me in each time I have seen it, which may also have something to do with the infrequency with which The Wild Duck gets staged. (Michael Grandage's 2005 production at the Donmar was pretty mighty, too.) But its cascading sadness is the take-away affect here, as rendered synoptic in James's description of his soon-to-be-sightless daughter "dancing into darkness". Plunging is more like it, not just for Hedwig but for a collective that comes to include an audience unlikely to be released easily from this production's doomy and altogether dazzling spell.

The contemporary connections always exist in the surface of the dual family dramas that overlap to ruinous effect


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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