A brightly lit auditorium and bare stage, with its exposed brick walls, look all set for a rehearsal. A man with a mic pops out of a rear door and makes ringing noises, encouraging people to check their mobile phones once more before providing background information on Ibsen. In case we weren’t aware, he tells us that he was Norwegian. Hence don’t complain, we are warned, about not seeing or hearing an original, true version of this play; we would not have understood a word of it and times have moved on.
A fascinating if somewhat self-indulgent exercise in dramatic innovation.
It’s a modern prologue to The Wild Duck at the Almeida by adaptor/director Robert Icke, a play that dates from 1884. It’s somewhat unsettling and feintly amusing yet sets the tone for what is to follow; one of many interludes that will reveal what characters are really thinking beneath the lines they utter, provide further context for various scenes and give commentary on matters of morality.
The narrator figure is joined by a man who emerges through the audience and they share the mic in light-hearted banter. Putting down the mic cues Ibsen’s play and in order of appearance the men emerge as Gregory Woods (Kevin Harvey) and James Ekdal (Edward Hogg). They were childhood friends, but Greg has been away from home for fifteen years. Despite his return he is unforgiving towards his father, Charles (Nicholas Day), for his part in the downfall of James’ father, Francis (Nicholas Farrell).
With the late addition of James to the lost son’s guest list there are now an ominous thirteen people at the dinner party in honour of Greg’s homecoming. An appearance by Francis opens up the history of the two families, the story of his imprisonment and his humiliation. Unbeknown as yet to James, it is Charles, meanwhile, who provides for the fallen family, not least because of his former relationship with James’ wife, Gina (Lyndsey Marshal). Upsetting their troubled existence further is the question mark that emerges over their daughter, Hedwig (Grace Doherty alternating with Clara Read): cue mic and the snippet about Ibsen’s illegitimate child.
There are fine performances throughout this production. Harvey comperes the show with ease but more importantly gives definition to the emotionally damaged Greg, beset with an ideological obsession for truth, honesty and openness that eventually becomes the destructive force in both families and the source of his own demise. While the seeds of impending doom are sown in act one, it is post interval that the play takes off with a vengeance, and the ‘original’ script is allowed to flow more freely and without interruption. Hogg, previously the easy-going, jovial, doting father brings about a remarkable transition to the doubting, embittered, wreck of humanity that perfectly matches Marshal’s demise from dutiful, homely wife and mother to a woman torn apart by her past and the secrets she has harboured. Similarly, Doherty initially portrays the delightful innocence of childhood before she too is drawn into the maelstrom of feuding parents and embarks upon her own course of action with maturity of purpose. The two fathers, who are so different from each other, shine in their respective roles. Day exudes the presence and control of a successful businessman but yet remains vulnerable and is emotionally distraught by his son’s unrelenting attacks and the secrets and lies he has lived with for so many years. Ironically, his fallen, impoverished counterpart seems more contented. Farrell is the man whose life is an open book, he relishes the games he plays with his granddaughter and amuses himself in the loft-world he has created, while his mind deteriorates, aided by his frequent intake of alcohol. Remaining aloof, Andrea Hall, as Charles’s next wife, has the assurance of a woman rising through the ranks of society who has no need to deal with the worlds of others. It is left to Rick Warden as Dr Relling to challenge Greg’s idealistic dogma and provide a vehement denunciation that asserts the need for living with illusions.
It is not just among the cast that transformations take place. Bunny Christie's set grows incrementally an item at a time. The once empty space has become a fully-fledged house by act two and complete with attic woodland by the end of the play. Elliot Griggs brings about a parallel change in lighting from flooded harsh white to cosy warm lamps. Together they create a magical move from minimalism to realism.
Which leaves Icke’s treatment of the The Wild Duck as the burning issue. For some it will be a dynamic act of deconstruction; a didactic demonstration of Ibsen’s message and intent. For others, the commentaries and interjections will detract from the text and destroy the play’s flow, irritatingly interrupting and intruding into the action just as it’s becoming possible to be immersed in it. In the middle will be a number who find it a fascinating if somewhat self-indulgent exercise in dramatic innovation.