The Wild Duck at the Almeida: A radical reinvention, superbly performed ★★★★

Director Robert Icke's take on Ibsen's play is "profoundly discombobulating", says Simon O'Hagan

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During a recent edition of Radio 4’s In Our Time, one of Melvyn Bragg’s trio of academics said that Ibsen was the second most performed playwright in the world after Shakespeare. That’s an awful lot of Norwegian angst. But there can’t ever have been a production of one of his plays quite like this profoundly discombobulating take on The Wild Duck.

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In the past few years, director Robert Icke has been acclaimed for his reimagining of work that includes Uncle Vanya, Hamlet, and the Oresteia. Now he’s done it with Ibsen’s masterly examination of what happens when family life is put under unbearable strain.

The play’s modernity shocked audiences when it was first performed in 1884. And the 2018 spin that Icke puts on proceedings — with added breaking of the fourth wall — has a similar effect. The production is billed as “after Henrik Ibsen”, not “by Henrik Ibsen”, and it only takes a few moments to see why.

The evening doesn’t just comprise a performance of the play but is punctuated by a series of moments in which actors step out of character, pick up a hand-held microphone, and address the audience directly, the purpose being to comment on what is “really” going on — under the surface, between the lines, in Ibsen’s own head.

Truth and lies is the big and very contemporary overarching theme, and in a tale that bristles with devastating buried secrets, Icke is on fertile ground. There are times, however, when exposition comes at the expense of drama and one is left wondering quite what to do with one’s willing suspense of disbelief.

The action has been updated to so that the home of James and Gina Ekdal — the couple, beautifully played by Edward Hogg and Lyndsey Marshal, around whom all the action pivots — doubles up as the photographic studio on which James is building his professional hopes.

What is image and what is reality is the question we are invited to consider — not so much in the wider world as in our personal lives. Truth will out, and the scene in which crisis finally erupts between James and Gina is shattering. 

The performances are uniformly superb. Ibsen was an early pioneer of naturalism, and the sense in which the people up on stage seem to be among us is palpable.

Kevin Harvey perfectly captures the gentleness in Gregor Woods’s soul, his performance — vocal as much as physical — quite wondrously free of any kind of artifice. And Nicholas Farrell (Francis Ekdal) and Nicholas Day (Charles Woods) are both magnificent in conveying the weakness and vulnerability of the play’s two patriarchal figures.

For the seven-week run, the role of 13-year-old Hedwig Ekdal — James and Gina’s daughter — alternates between Grace Doherty and Clara Read. It was Read who played the part on press night, and the way she embodies the pain and confusion of a child caught up in the crossfire of adult warring is remarkable. 

Simon O’Hagan

Booking till 1 December

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www.almeida.co.uk