Ibsen knew that the truth is a complicated thing.
In general, seeking out the truth appears to be a valuable endeavor, but in reality living with the truth may be no good at all. Whether it is hidden, manipulated, told, found out, revealed, the truth can have explosive consequences. Of course, small lies and insignificant truths are told on a day-to-day basis with little repercussions. Yet, truth has the power to be a crucial player in moments of catastrophic tragedy.
In his director’s note, Simon Stone denotes the importance of the idea that Ibsen was integrating moments of tragedy that were not consistent with realism, as we understand it to be in the post-cinematic climate. We are visiting these characters during moments of great distress, yet, we are not constant passengers in their lives playing witness to the mundane as well – we only see the spectacle of their grief.
Perhaps this is why he has elected to partition the stage with a glass box that acts as a physical barrier between the stage and the audience, with time being momentarily displayed on two LCD screens that sit high above the box on either side. Waves of darkness envelope the stage with booming classical music played in moments of black. This is a highly stylised production in terms of set design; the black stage strips any pretence of realism.
The acting style, however, is extremely colloquial and naturalistic, and the speech is littered with swear words. With its smooth, rolling sound the Australian seems only to add to the informality. Because of the casualness of their interactions the characters’ names stand out like a sore thumb, reminding us that this is Ibsen’s show: Hjalmar Ekdal, Haakon Werle and Hedvig Ekdal are definitely not reminiscent of modern Sydney. The stage seems to represent no place at all.
Sydney Belvoir Company’s The Wild Duck is the final production in the Barbican’s International Ibsen Season, which featured plays from France and Germany. The play begins with a duck standing alone on an empty stage, staring out through the glass at the rows of people, staring back at it in return. This brief, quiet exchange digresses into the duck wildly flapping its wings before the set again shrinks into darkness causing a bellow of laughter from the audience.
Having a live animal on stage is a tricky thing and of course he is a major distraction, but not in a negative way. We feel acutely aware of our role of spectator by the duck’s inclusion for he makes all other action on stage feel rehearsed in comparison, and therefore subject to further interrogation.
Perhaps for Stone, the duck is the best notion of realism. Although contained by the glass box, the duck will react how he pleases, incapable of falling into the rhythms of a script. The duck definitely captures his fair share of our attention, but we remain invested in Ibsen’s finely crafted world, which Stone has trimmed into a neat 90 minute play. Brendan Cowell’s portrayal of Hjalmar is a highlight; he appears as man who seems to have found his ideal habitat amongst his wife and child, not really striving for anything greater but elated with this achievement alone; for him, complacency is not an issue. In comparison with his daughter Hedvik, who appears to value people more than ideals, Hjalmar’s world collapses when the truth comes to fruition. He is infantile in his response and renders the situation even bleaker, making him culpable for the greatest tragedy of all. The entire cast is on point and proves that Sydney has plenty to offer the international theatre scene.
The Wild Duck is a marvellous piece of theatre from an astute director who masterfully edits Ibsen’s created world into a snappy play that makes points of discovery in the text more urgent.
The Wild Duck is at the Barbican until 1 November., For tickets and further information, see the Barbican website. Photo by Heidrun Löhr.