Belvoir Sydney’s The Wild Duck is a lot like an archaeological dig. Bear with me on this. Simon Stone and Chris Ryan have taken their shovels to the field of Ibsen’s original, carefully marked off the areas they want to excavate, dug deep into its core and uncovered the treasure far below the surface. Then, like any great archaeologists would, they have put their discovery into a glass case.
Stripping back the cast list and chopping the whole thing down to less than an hour and a half in a new version, they have created something truly beautiful. The Wild Duck retains its most important pieces but is given a modern update and the result is taught, electrifying and pulsing with a feverish passion.
Many years ago the Werles and the Ekdals were business partners. Then Haakon Werle framed Ekdal for fraud and their lives were changed forever. The painful old wounds seem to have healed when the play begins. The old men’s sons have grown up. The past is in the past. Gregers Werle (Dan Wyllie) returns for his father’s wedding and pays his old friend Hjalmar Ekdal (Brendan Cowell) a visit. The two are thick as thieves in no time but in Ibsen secrets never stay hidden for long. Gregers makes a shocking discovery and this time the Ekdals’ wounds will be fatal.
Staging the production in a glass cube allows us to dissect every moment with incredible focus and clarity. The tension is cranked up to breaking point with snappy scene changes in pitch black, the clocks at either side of the stage racing through a tragic week in the lives of the two families. Although each scene is just a snapshot the characters are developed magnificently, though the Ekdals are by far the strongest. Richard Piper’s ageing patriarch shows heartbreaking twinges of dementia as he walks round the forest he has created in the attic, cradling his real life wild duck and telling stories of how his life once was. Anita Hegh is breathtaking as Gina, his daughter-in-law, whose hidden past will out, and Sara West gives a soft and heartbreaking performance as her doomed daughter Hedvig. The strongest of them all is Brendan Cowell as Hjalmar, a fun-loving dad who brings the whole family together. The realism is carefully constructed; the family is idyllic. When the truth comes crushing down with a blaring rock soundtrack shattering the quietude of the first half it’s absolutely devastating.
The Wild Duck teases us with a happy ending before unravelling further and further until an utterly harrowing development with such emotive force that it blows us away even from offstage. A year later, Gina and Hjalmar have escaped the stifling box of the family drama but yet, strolling along in front of the glass, they are more trapped than ever by the terrible past we have just seen. Belvoir Sydney’s The Wild Duck is a loaded gun waiting to go off., exploding when you least expect it. It has left an unnerving bullet lodged in my brain that I probably won’t shift for weeks.
- By Simon Stone with Chris Ryan after Henrik Ibsen
- Cast: Brendan Cowell, John Gaden, Ania Hegh, Richard Piper, Sara West and Dan Wyllie
- Barbican Centre, London
- Until 1st November 2014
- Time: 19.45
- Review by Rowena Hawkins
- 25 October 2014