Where do you go from the success of an iconic expansive exploration of mortality and political identity like Hamlet? For Robert Icke, you start small again, and you build. Open with a single, tormented family and build a huge crucible of emotion, exploring truth, deception and every thorny thing mingled in between.
The Wild Duck may not have the same stature of other Ibsen plays but in Icke’s almost infuriatingly capable hands the play becomes a timeless, instantly enthralling epic. The show follows two families, the Woods and the Ekdals, meshed together by a web of betrayal, kinship and financial dependency. It mostly plays out in the upstairs loft of the family of the younger James Ekdal (Edward Hogg) joined by his wife Gina (Lyndsey Marshal), his father Francis (Nicholas Farrell) and his daughter Hedwig (a brilliant performance from Clara Read for press night, also played by Grace Doherty).
Using Ibsen’s story as his starting point, Icke embellishes his production with the use of handheld mics – characters whip them out at various points to soliloquize, to exposit, or to provide a conflicting layer of truth to ongoing moments. It takes a while for this form to all pay off, but when it does (Icke once more breaking his own rules in the process) it’s a masterstroke of adaptation and structure, aided by some crafty tricks built into the set by Bunny Christie (less than a week, no less, since her blazing opening in Company).
It’s a largely ensemble effort, headed by Kevin Harvey, who opens the show with metatheatrical gusto as Gregory Woods, James’ childhood friend and returning idealist. There’s a stellar turn from Farrell as the elder Ekdal, while Hogg, beginning with a finger-twisting awkwardness and forced gaiety, eventually becomes a shuddering reflection of a man incapacitated by revelation.
Because the show is one all about truth (and, thankfully, not in a “let’s all interrogate fake news”-y sort of way) and the ways in which people are hidden from it, or run from it. Icke doesn’t deny, particularly through the character of Relling (a surly, almost refreshingly no-bullshit Rick Warden), that living in a fantasy can mean harmony and solace, while the truth simply leads to a gaping pool of nihilism. The end of the show, ambiguously pensive, never seeks to find any answers. It only dwells our means of coping with these two alternatives.
Christie’s design played well into this. There’s a fascinating exploration of the house in Hitchcock’s film Psycho that highlights how each floor of the Bates’ mansion reflects the id, the ego and the superego of the central antagonist (won’t dwell on it here but worth a read). Something similar functions in Icke’s production in terms of the relationship between character and space (Icke even opens the text with a quote about theatre space courtesy of Peter Brook).
Ekdal’s main loft area, the occupied space, is where the performance occurs. Above, and partially disguised for most of the show is the attic, “a forest” chock full of fairy lights and Christmas trees. A fake, fabricated forest that allows the Ekdals to live out their fantasies, “hunting” game and tending to an (actual!) wild duck. The glittering, glamorous lies constantly overshadow the performance, always present though only revealed in their full glory towards the end of the show. The promise of a better, more rustic, harmonious lifestyle out of reach and near constantly obscured.
Characters, often ushering in the truth (and torment) enter via a set of stairs winding downwards from stage right. It’s where Harvey’s Greg first intrudes on the Ekdal’s life, and where his father Charles later appears from. Even Charles’ fiancé (Andrea Hall), innocently delivering a present, brings a horrific confession when she enters via the same set of stairs. It means the Ekdals’ flat is in a perpetual limbo, residing above truth yet always allowing characters to escape into their fantasies above.
But the show goes even further. Theatre itself straddles the same line between truth and lie (as Icke explains with an opening monologue). Actors are always faking it (as the microphones highlight), yet an audience is always conscious of a truth going on beneath their performance.
And Icke knows that there’s a truth hidden in The Wild Duck – Ibsen himself fathered an illegitimate child, one about to reach the age of 13 (the same age as the young Hedwig) when The Wild Duck was printed. His creation of the 1884 play functions as a means of rewriting history, transforming his real-life circumstances into fictitious ones. Icke taps into this – Ibsen’s play is a lie, but in the act of lying he makes the truth all the more significant.
Icke says in the show text (well worth picking up) that the staging is meant to feel like a photograph developing – slowly moving from abstraction to naturalism. True, the ruminating about the nature of truth, love, life and meaning may all start to wear slightly, only really coming to a satisfying close in the midst of act two. But, sigh, you just don’t care. It’s smart, it’s adept and it ends with one of the most terrifying theatrical experiences of the year.
Ideas, characters, circumstances and contexts each slowly become more and more, almost painfully, unbearably explicit. And scene.
The Wild Duck is on at the Almeida until 1st December 2018. Tickets start at £39.50 and are available here.