With its stark, denuded set encased in a glass box and employing minimal props, this production is a triumph of the spoken word.
The text itself is a distillation of Henrik Ibsen’s script, encapsulating the essence, albeit catapulting it into the present day, replete with teen-speak and references to the mod cons and ‘cankles’. Characters are eliminated which reduces it down to 90 minutes. Bertha Sorby (Werle’s fiancée), Dr Relling and Molvik didn’t make the final cut.
Taking place over the course of a week, the story centres on the lives of two families whose histories are inextricably intertwined. Gregers (Toby Schmitz) returns to his father, Werle (John Gaden), to attend the latter’s upcoming nuptials and to take over the family business after a long absence. While in town he catches up with an old friend (Hjalmar – Ewen Leslie) and his father, Ekdal (Anthony Phelan), who still works for Werle.
Through snatches of conversations harbouring revelations in short, unfinished scenes, secrets find their way to the surface and lives unravel.
Written by Chris Ryan and Simon Stone (also the director) and based on Ibsen’s play from 1884, this version of The Wild Duck started its life at Belvoir St Theatre. Whereas the original focussed ostensibly on idealist Gregers Werle and his imperative that the truth be told, this character is less forceful a presence, while remaining the catalyst in this production.
The drawback of this abbreviated script is the characterisation is simply sketched. We don’t get the fullness of the players in this tragedy. But it still manages to pack a punch.
It takes a while to recognise Ewen Leslie under all that facial hair. This role, a departure from the Shakespeare he’s been starring in lately, allows him to show a playful side. While there’s a sense in this incarnation of the play that no one character is the centrepiece, Leslie’s Hjalmar in particular rides a wave of emotions – and the audience along with him. One significant scene elicited a collective sniffle on the night I attended.
Anita Hegh gives an impassioned yet deftly handled performance as Gina, wife of Hjalmar, while Eloise Mignon as daughter Hedvig seems to have become typecast. She has racked up several roles now (Return to Earth, The Grenade, In a Dark, Dark House) playing an out and out child or the ingénue. In this one it’s the former. But she does have this down pat.
And yes, there is a live duck on stage – initially the justification I gave for the use of the glass enclosure. But the alternative, and highly probable, scenario bears a construct almost too clichéd to countenance: the glass case signifies entrapment and that once the deep, dark secret is out in the open, so too are the protagonists, freed from their invisible cage.
The Wild Duck is on at the Malthouse Theatre until 17 March.