The Wild Duck

Malthouse Theatre, 14 March 2012

(I forgot to post this earlier this year)

Written by Simon Stone and Chris Ryan after Ibsen

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I didn’t think I’d like this production having endured Simon Stone’s laborious and pretentious version of Brecht’s Baal last year, but, I’ve got to concede that the Belvoir Street young guns delivered the goods with their take on Ibsen’s masterpiece, The Wild Duck. But let’s be clear, this is not Ibsen’s play as such. Now some folks might have a problem with a work that throws out Ibsen’s dialogue, but keeps its structure intact. I’m not one of them. Besides, Stone clearly declares his hand by stating that his production is merely after Ibsen. Pedants and conservative critics will moan about such a gambit, but I think it’s a stroke of genius, and one that results in compelling, if not great, theatre.

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The play is one of the Norwegian master’s best-known works for good reason. Like all his best writing for the stage, it exposes the cracks and fault lines in conventional verities about human behavior. For me, it’s always been a play about fanaticism, a cautionary tale about the relentless pursuit of the truth for its own sake without regard for consequences. The quest for truth is always noble, right? How can anything other than the truth sustain our lives and relationships? Ibsen deftly unsettles any simple understanding of the relationship between truth and untruth in his domestic tragedy, which culminates in the death of a young girl, Hedvig, who discovers the unsavory ‘truth’ about her parentage (I hate supplying plot summaries, so if you haven’t read the play you can find it here).

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The fanatic, in Ibsen’s text, Gregers Werle is convinced that he must expose the hypocrisy at the heart the marriage between Hjalmar and Gina Ekdal, Hedvig’s loving parents. Long story short, Hjalmer is not Hedvig’s father. The girl’s biological father is none other than Gregers’ old man, a rich old capitalist. Yes, this is a play about Daddy issues, and it has more than its fair share of Oedipal overtones.

Stone’s production makes Gregers Werle a much more reasonable, and sympathetic character, so the theme of fanaticism is muted. In fact, it’s a totally different play in many respects. It’s set in contemporary Australia for starters, and the characters speak with colloquial Aussie accents. Stone replaces Ibsen’s dialogue with his own original text (which he developed with Chris Ryan). This ensures that the jokes are funny, the cultural references are topical and the audience can more easily suspend disbelief (most existing English translations are lousy, and almost impossible to stage successfully).

Stone retains the structure, or the architecture of Ibsen’s original text, and this gives his work a solid dramatic foundation. This is not plagiarism. It’s common sense. There are only a limited amount of stories in the world, structurally speaking, and there is no harm done when an artist borrows the structure of another work. Many great artists have done this: Shakespeare, Kurasowa, Bob Dylan. Stone’s approach to this classic work is akin to a folksinger’s rewriting of an ancient ballad, which respects the traditional source by adapting it and making it resonate with the present.

Stone and his creative team find a way to make this great old text work on the contemporary stage by moving away from treating the text as a sacred object, or trying to produce an ‘authentic’ historical version of the play. They take a number of creative risks that pay high dividends. The set design, for example, is as startling and original as any that I’ve seen. The entire set is enclosed in a large Perspex box. The actors’ voices are amplified and fed through the theatre’s PA system. At times, the audience can clearly view their own reflection in the structure that envelopes and contains the action. Props are minimal, and there is no attempt to render a contemporary version of ‘naturalism’. This unique spatial configuration gives the work a televisual aspect, and at times the play comes across a bit like an Aussie soap opera. This is actually a strength insofar as it underscores the domestic themes present in Ibsen’s original text, and contemporary media.

This is not to say that the production is without flaws. The last scene, which occurs outside the Perspex enclosure, is unconvincing. Hedvig’s grieving parents have one last awkward encounter, which tries a little too hard to resolve issues that are perhaps best left hanging in the minds of the spectators. This is a relatively minor criticism of a bold and popular work. Adaptations are never easy. They require a great deal of skill and talent. Don’t believe me? Have a go at ‘ripping off’ an Ibsen play yourself. Ghosts is ripe for a contemporary makeover. Any takers? Go on, you know you want to.

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