The Wild Duck, Barbican

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Confession time. Two Friday evenings in a row now I’ve seen “radical”, 21st-century takes on classic plays. These are plays by well-known writers, plays that get studied in school. And on both occasions, I had no idea what was going to happen. 

First up was David Cromer’s absorbing, stripped back version of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, a familiar text in the States but one that is performed less frequently over here. This was followed seven days later by Belvoir Sydney’s production of The Wild Duck, in a contemporary reimagining by Simon Stone and Chris Ryan “after Henrik Ibsen”. Both – in different ways – were utterly compelling.

When approaching classics, it’s easy to forget that these were once pieces crafted to surprise and delight audiences rather than to numb them with their familiarity. It’s also easy to forget that for many theatregoers these well-worn texts are a complete novelty at the point of stepping into the auditorium. It is still possible to arrive at Hamlet not knowing the fate of the famous Dane, or to sit through A Doll’s House without queasily anticipating that final, shuddering door slam. And if Our Town and The Wild Duck are anything to go by, they’re probably all the more thrilling for the lack of foresight.

In the case of The Wild Duck, the experience of watching is set at another remove from the classic status of the text, which has essentially been adapted by Stone and Ryan. Were it not for Ibsen’s name plastered over the poster, it would be easy to come away from their production with the impression of having just seen a piece of new Australian writing – a fact likely to irk some theatregoers, but one that points to the mutable nature of theatre’s written components. Times change and texts inevitably change with them, even if not streamlined and modernised as thoroughly as Stone and Ryan’s version.

The other thing to know about this Wild Duck is that it does, in fact, contain a duck. A real, living, breathing, wing-flapping duck. Belvoir’s production opens with said creature alone on the stage, spreading its wings to a joyful chorus of cooing delight; there are few more unifying audience experiences than collectively ‘awww’-ing over an animal.

With that out of the way, the show can begin to move relentlessly towards the domestic tragedy that clouds it from the beginning, blotting out its initial, duck-shaped image of freedom and innocence. This is a dark piece in every way, from Ralph Myers’ spare, pitch black design to the shadows steadily collecting around the characters. Scenes too are bookended with deep plunges into darkness, often at the height of their dramatic action. Part of what makes the production so horribly compelling is that the svelte slices of narrative we are given seem to be hacked out of the middle of conversations, leaving just enough unsaid on either side.

The duck who so confidently opens the show belongs to the Ekdal family, a group of fragile yet content individuals who find an escape from the hostile world in the home they have made together. Simple domestic happiness has a particularly warm glow here, as Hjalmar, his wife Gina and their teenage daughter Hedvig all affectionately nag and tease one another. Their precarious bliss is soon toppled, however, by the malign truth-telling of Hjalmar’s old friend Gregars, who produces one hell of a skeleton from the Ekdals’ cupboard. The subsequent fall is swift and shattering.

Not content with the invisible fourth wall of Ibsen’s naturalistic drama, Myers’ design translates that into a perspex box inside which the increasingly devastating scenes play out, each signalled by its date and time on a screen above the performers. Stage time acquires that compressed and dizzying quality that tends to follow disaster, as scenes start to overlap and dramatic logic, like the family, splinters apart. We in the audience peer down all the while – emotionally pummelled voyeurs made witness to a family’s rapid breakdown.

Perhaps it fails to do justice to Ibsen’s original. Perhaps by sanding that play down to its exposed raw materials it loses some of the texture that had been layered on top. I don’t know. What I do know is that this version is mercilessly affecting, tuning the emotional response of its audience as expertly as it modulates the music between scenes, from ominous strings to a furious snarl of electric guitar. It’s at once heartbreaking and breathlessly exciting.

There is, of course, a different kind of satisfaction to be had from seeing a new take on a familiar text. Each time I see a fresh interpretation of a Chekhov play, for instance, new facets are revealed, new meanings endlessly unfolded. But there is a particular pleasure tied up in the frisson of not-knowing, especially when feeling is deployed with such precision and force. This, I can’t help but suspect, is how such theatre is made to be experienced. Or, as one of my companions put it after the show, “who wants to fucking read a play?”

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