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?”

Opus No 7, Barbican

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If you haven’t seen Opus No 7 and you still have an opportunity to, stop reading now.

Go see it.

There’s not really a plot as such to spoil, but the below will unavoidably outline some of the images that gain so much of their power from surprise. So be warned.

Dmitry Krymov has a talent for making the ordinary appear strange, for transforming the familiar into the singular. Limbs explode from cardboard walls, startlingly divorced from the bodies that own them. Splashes of black paint morph into shadowy figures. A blizzard of newspaper scraps conjures debris one moment and confetti the next. The dead hold hands with the living. The inanimate is given life. Image bursts into reality and reality solidifies into image.

Opus No 7, the designer turned director’s latest production, is a dazzling procession of such transformations. So composed is it of images, the performance does not yield willingly to language. As elusive as it is astonishing, its qualities slip from the critical grasp – shape-shifting, like Krymov’s captivating pictures, just as the mind begins to outline them. This is theatre made for feeling, not thinking.

There is a structure of sorts, though this too is elusive. The first half, Genealogy, yawns with loss. In it, a group of figures sift through fragments of history, clutching at names, photographs, items of clothing. Phoenix-like, they move among the ashes of the past. Though abstract, the scenes allude in their haunting imagery to the Holocaust – but strikingly unshackled from the now familiar visual markers that history has attached to it. In its sudden, surprising evocation of loss, there is something inexplicably moving about a performer walking along a pair of tiny red shoes by their laces, or a cardboard arm suddenly reaching up to take that same performer’s hand.

The second half offers us a visual biography of composer Dmitry Shostakovich, who we see first nurtured and then smothered by an oppressive Mother Russia. As a child-like figure at the opening of the act, hugging to Mother Russia’s skirts, the wooden skeleton of a piano is Shostakovich’s climbing frame, his creativity given free and playful rein. But the same power that initially encouraged the composer later ensnares him, pinning a medal on his chest that stabs him through the heart. As Soviet repression and censorship reaches its height, Mother Russia pulls the trigger on her artists and the piano bursts into flame.

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Fittingly, given the subject of the second act, Opus No 7 operates more like music than theatre. It is, for a start, largely wordless. There are echoes and refrains: the chilling tread of an SS officer in the first half becomes the boot of Mother Russia – realised as a huge and often terrifying puppet – in the second. Silence and stillness are juxtaposed with furious flurries of activity, as pitch and tempo both fluctuate. The theatrical crescendo, as rusty pianos invade the stage and crash violently into one another, is powerful as much for the accompaniment of Shostakovich’s “Symphony No 7” as it is for what we see.

And the performance provoked in me the kind of raw, visceral, emotional response that I more readily associate with music – and, interestingly, with visual art – than with theatre. When I walk around a gallery or listen to a piece of music, my reaction (at least my first reaction) is instinctive rather than cerebral. If I really, really love a painting or a sculpture or a song, the feeling it stirs is perhaps best described as an ache; pleasure bruised with just a hint of pain. Opus No 7 leaves behind that same sort of ache.

At one point during the first half, I remember thinking: there’s too much. Not, I should hastily add, in a negative way. At the Barbican, we are seated on the stage of the main theatre, thrillingly close to the action. It is a wide, wide stage. Placed right up close to the performance, it is therefore impossible to take in everything that is happening at one time – the playing space is just too big. The experience of watching, then, is to a degree overwhelming. And I wonder if this is part of its power. Like the aesthetic sublime, it is too much to take in at once, to comprehend as a whole. For that reason, it both awes and captivates.

Watching theatre like this, I’m aware more than ever of the visual poverty of so much of what we see on Britain’s stages. Where, apart from a scattering of bold efforts, is our designer-led theatre? The visual, as Krymov and his team prove, can be just as eloquent as the verbal. Opus No 7 is no less rich for its scarcity of language; ideas, though slippery, still move under its mesmerising surface of unforgettable images. The impact is indescribable, yet indelible.

Photos: Natalia Cheban.

Ubu Roi, Barbican

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Few plays have a more intoxicatingly, misleadingly chronicled history than Alfred Jarry’s bourgeois-taunting phenomenon Ubu Roi. Mythologised as a violent break in theatre tradition, the moment at which the well-heeled patrons of the boulevard theatre clutched their breasts in shock and the avant-garde was born, the play is remembered above all for sparking a riot at its premiere in 1896, causing it to subsequently be banned from the stage. The truth, as so often when divorced from the sensationalism, is a lot less dramatic: Jarry himself in fact paid a group of friends to cause a ruckus during the performance, intent on provoking a scandal. He certainly succeeded.

It’s the sort of gleeful, calculated trouble-making that recalls the stubborn anarchism of adolescence, an association that Cheek By Jowl have taken and run with in their new version of this problematic play. Picking up on Ubu’s own roots in the teenage imagination – the character was initially a grotesque caricature of one of Jarry’s teachers, created for the entertainment of his schoolmates – director Declan Donnellan has negotiated the text’s crude extremes by framing it as fantasy. Here, Ubu’s depraved, monstrous acts become the cruel and frustrated Oedipal imaginings of a teenage boy with a video camera, a fierce psychological shattering of his parents’ stiflingly spotless middle-class existence.

Nick Ormerod’s design swathes the Barbican’s Silk Street Theatre in a tyranny of beige and cream; a modern show home dream, its pristinely laid dining table a picture-perfect lesson in entertaining. Père and Mère Ubu are expecting guests, fussing over outfits and re-arranging coffee table nibbles, while their teenage son – a scruffy grey blot on the otherwise unspoiled living room – skulks around with his camera, offering the audience a glimpse into the rest of the gleaming Ubu home. In an intriguing but over-long opening, the eye of the camera lens takes us on a voyeuristic tour of the house, zooming in on even the most immaculate of surfaces to reveal tiny, tainting traces of human filth: a single dark hair buried in the bedclothes, a smudged lipstick stain on the rim of a glass, a slender speck of dirt on the shiny white toilet seat. As the creator of Ubu well knew, you can never quite banish the muck of human life.

Once the production has laboured to provide us with this frame, the action as we know it can begin, the infamous opening “merdre” spluttered out in an extended frenzy of anticipation. With Ubu’s story of ruthless, inane power-grabbing underway, its grotesquely cartoonish excesses are given free rein, all the while skewering the empty social rituals of the familiar dinner party environment it punctures. Christophe Grégoire’s increasingly monstrous, gurning Ubu might be the gargoyle everyone expects, but the precise physical detail put into the performances by Cheek By Jowl’s excellent French ensemble elevates the ridiculous spectacle of the anti-hero’s rise and fall. There is also room for some witty added touches; a jibe at bankers allows the audience to titter without losing the accusatory sting that Jarry was first aiming for, while the medium of the video camera allows for a few grinning sideswipes at Hollywood’s stylistic clichés.

Even as precisely and intelligently handled as here, however, Ubu Roi remains a heavy burden to heft onto the stage, and after more than an hour of clowning its brashness begins to grate. But it is the main narrative’s framing mirror image that – as well as producing the greatest laughs – becomes increasingly disturbing throughout the play’s descent into mess and depravity. With their magnolia haven in tatters around them, Ubu’s disruptive work done, the dinner guests sit serenely in the midst of the destruction, their small talk blithely continuing. Knowingly placed as it is at the heart of London’s financial district, it is hard not to read this fatal stasis as a bitter metaphor. Perhaps the savage power of Jarry’s play now lies not in its supposed ability to start a riot, but in the fact that no riot is breaking out.

Photo: Johan Persson