Thursday, 23 February 2012

The Wild Duck, Belvoir/Malthouse Feb 22, 2012 ****

After Henrik Ibsen by Simon Stone & Chris Ryan

Belvoir Production, presented by Malthouse
Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse, Feb 22 to March 17, 2012
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on opening night Feb 22, 2012,
 Anthony Phelan, John Gaden, Anita Hegh in The Wild Duck, Malthouse 

The great strength of this adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s five-act play, The Wild Duck, is the exquisitely balanced, sensitively wrought performances.

The script (Simon Stone, Chris Ryan) condenses the action, sets it in the contemporary world, reduces the number of characters and uses colloquial, accessible dialogue.

It is about the damage wrought by a long-held secret being revealed to a family that cannot handle its repercussions.

Gregers (Toby Schmitz) returns to his father, Werle (John Gaden) to find that his old friend, Hjalmar (Ewen Leslie), is married to Gregers’ father’s former lover. Gregers believes that by exposing this secret he will set everyone free. Wrong!

The multiple short scenes are cinematic and the extreme naturalism of dialogue and acting is heightened by the stark emptiness of the set (Ralph Myers).

Stone’s abstract staging removes specific locations, dropping actors into an austere, carpeted room surrounded by walls of glass through which we peer like voyeurs.

The direction is slick with a balanced pace and, although the audience may initially feel alienated from the action, we are slowly drawn through the glass walls as the characters’ tragedy unfolds.

This is a family drama of the kind we see on television, with intimate relationships exposed. However, short scenes and idiomatic quips interrupt the dramatic tension of Ibsen’s escalating tragedy so that, although we are touched by the final catastrophe, the drama is less affecting.

This tragedy lacks that desperate juggernaut of inevitability inherent in a story about a poor choice that sets uncontrollable events in motion.

The adaptation loses the elegance and intensity of Ibsen’s language and replaces it with more mundane, middle class banter.

Leslie as the under-confident Hjalmar, balances vibrating energy with an intense and frightening vulnerability while Schmitz, as the privileged and composed Gregers, has a deliciously cool and restrained humour.

Gaden as Werle is impeccably dignified and self-serving while Anthony Phelan as old Ekdal is the sentimental favourite, with his faded grandeur and dotty obsession with the injured duck.

Anita Hegh, as Gina, captures the rising panic of a woman whose security is threatened and Eloise Mignon’s Hedwig blends childishness with smart-mouthed adolescence.

One cannot help comparing this production with Thomas Ostermeier’s production of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler for Berlin’s Schaubuhne that we saw in October, 2011. He also hurled the play into the 21st century and placed it in a cold, modern, glass and mirrored design, a human specimen case that refracted their warped lives.

It combined exceptional realism with nuanced acting and complex direction to conjure a claustrophobic, fraught world of human drama. Ostermeier used Ibsen’s language, albeit in German, but enhanced the relationships, characters and story with detailed physicality and non-verbal language that illuminated the plot and themes.

By Kate Herbert

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