Almeida wunderkind Robert Icke strikes gold again with this moving and clever take on Ibsen
Totemic Almeida associate Robert Icke is such a ludicrously and consistently good director that I sometimes find myself wearily bracing for the brilliance of his shows. Trotting slowly through the white male canon, in productions rarely shy of three hours, it can all sound a bit like taking your theatrical medicine. But in practice, it’s almost always extraordinary.
‘The Wild Duck’ is a sort of upper mid-tier Ibsen play which Icke’s new version manages to simultaneously deconstruct, make more intimate, and vastly expand upon. As Kevin Harvey’s Gregory Woods wanders on to the Almeida’s bare, brightly lit stage, he casually – almost smirkingly – informs us that ‘The Wild Duck’ is a play written by Henrik Ibsen in 1885, and that there is no point in a British audience expecting a ‘true’ version of something originally written in Norwegian – but that there is a truth buried under all this.
For the 90-minute first half he slowly builds up a picture of James Ekdal (Edward Hogg): essentially a failure in life, but blessed by the loving and tolerant family of his wife Gina (Lyndsey Marshal, a picture of guilt-wracked compassion) and 12-year-old daughter Hedwig (on press night Clara Reed excellent as a smart child who fatally can’t quite understand the adult world). Plus there’s his oddball father Francis (Nicholas Farrell, enjoyably fruity), who spends his time living and hunting in the eccentric ‘forest’ he has built in the attic. Their fates are entwined with those of the Woods: patriarch Charles (Nicholas Day) is a hugely wealthy businessman who has served as patron to James, apparently over guilt about something that happened when he was a business partner to Francis. And his son Gregory, an estranged childhood friend of James, has rebelled against his father’s perceived rapaciousness and taken to aggressively trying to inform anyone who’ll listen of ‘the truth’ about him.
A huge part of Icke’s talent is as a writer and being able to adapt stiff-but-important classical texts into empathetic, tender work in modern English. The first half is a frequently beautiful account of flawed human beings trying to keep their shit together under desperate circumstances (while also vocally dissecting the allegorical significance of the wild duck Francis has in his attic). It’s extremely well anchored by Edward Hogg’s weak, caring, bad-postured James: a vanity-free performance shockingly different to his matinee idol-ish turn in the Open Air Theatre’s ‘As You Like It’ this summer.
It all kicks off in the gutwrenching second half, in which the house of cards Icke and Ibsen have so exquisitely built up begins to topple. It is extremely moving, as these basically decent people’s lives start imploding. But it is also gratifyingly and unabashedly cerebral, explicitly turning into a thesis on the nature of truth: the truth in theatre, the truth about Ibsen, and above all the emotional truth that can exist upon a foundation of lies.
Without ever quite spelling it out, Icke’s ‘Duck’ also feels like it has something pointed to say about the contemporary outrage culture: Harvey’s well-meaning but incredibly damaged Gregory feels like a very recognisable figure to anybody who spends much time on social media, a man who believes his take on the truth is so important that he’s lost all sense of basic human empathy.
Toss in across-the-board great performances, a nifty soundtrack, a deceptively simple set from Bunny Christie with one tremendous surprise, and an actual live duck and Robert Icke has only gone and done it again – another classic not so much ‘updated’ as fully realised for our times.
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5 / 5
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A play of two halves perhaps which soars gloriously in the latter parts. Bravaura staging by Icke in his usual inventive minimalist way which allows the superlative acting to shine. Not going to replace the Icke-Scott Hamlet at the very top of Icke's productions, but this is a glorious and deeply intelligent reading of the play.
Highly highly recommended, particularly for fans of Icke.