The Wild Duck

Henrik Ibsen
Almeida Theatre

Lyndsey Marshal and Edward Hogg Credit: Manuel Harlan
Grace Doherty Credit: Manuel Harlan

When Rupert Goold commissions Robert Icke to adapt and direct a classic, one thing is certain: the result will be ultra-modern and unconventional. Whether it will be to the taste of individual viewers is always difficult to predict.

There is not so much a set as a void, with actors wearing what could easily be rehearsal costumes and playing in a wide-open space with little adornment, although limited props are utilised in Bunny Christie’s design.

From a metatheatrical prologue delivered in relaxed fashion by Kevin Harvey, who takes the role of Gregory Woods, it is immediately apparent that Icke is setting out to deconstruct and revise Ibsen's text, his obvious intention being to help a play that is over 130 years old speak in modern language to a contemporary audience.

For the 90 minutes leading up to the interval, the interpretation develops along relatively conventional lines. We hear overlapping stories of familial disputes with scandals abounding. There are also numerous opportunities to get inside the heads of characters as they reveal their inner thoughts in asides and occasionally mock-soliloquies.

Gregory Woods is a model of truth-telling who despises his rich but scheming and powerful father, Nicholas Day taking the role of imperious Charles.

Edward Hogg is James Ekdal, a hopeless case filled with insecurities, many justifiable since he is incapable of making or keeping money. His father Francis, played by Nicholas Farrell with a cast on his left arm, is an ex-con whose mind is diminishing.

On the positive side of the equation, James’s wife Gina, played by Lyndsey Marshal, is kind, devoted and hard-working, while their daughter Hedwig, portrayed at the performance under review by the highly talented Grace Doherty, is lovely. The girl on the brink of her 13th birthday is however sadly tainted by macular degeneration, which doctors have confirmed will gradually take away her sight.

As so often with Ibsen, the arch symbolist, tensions smoulder while secrets vie both to hide and emerge, frequently changing the perceptions that have been so carefully instilled into our minds.

After the interval and for the remainder of the 3-hour running time, the Icke version ploughs its own distinctive furrow, moving a considerable way from the spirit of its original progenitor.

Rather than challenging viewers to read and interpret subtle clues, the director spells everything out at length and in a manner that is in danger of denuding the play of much of its carefully developed intrigue.

As a result, instead of thought-provoking if sometimes frustrating Scandinavian obfuscation, the effect can seem rather closer to an undergraduate seminar with limited staging and excessive explanation of events and underlying motivations.

Many visitors may well enjoy the relatively undemanding nature of this production, although dyed in the wool Ibsen devotees might well feel that the new version adds little and takes much from a play that they admire so much.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

Are you sure?