Robert Icke’s last production for the Almeida – Hamlet, starring Andrew Scott – soundtracked its final scene with Bob Dylan’s ‘Not Dark Yet’. The director’s new work, a version of Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, could equally easily be backed by Dylan’s beautifully melancholic song, not just in its closing moments but throughout.
Popular metaphor represents ‘truth’ as light and ‘lies’ as darkness. Hence why the Dark Ages are considered an era of stifled creativity, innovation and thought, and the Enlightenment is the starter-gun in the race towards rational, continually progressing modernity. If we can ‘shine a light’ on a problem we might be able to solve it. Studying a topic can be really ‘illuminating’.
The Wild Duck starts in absolute brightness. The Almeida’s auditorium is saturated in the aggressive glare of flouro strip lights (think school hall). It’s an uncomfortable light, the interrogatory dazzle of the Pixar lamp turned mean, or the blue-white light of the lit-up computer screen. For the audience, it’s unsettling. We’re used to the house lights descending in an auditorium, marking the start of a performance and the plunge into the dark otherworld of theatre. Gradually, over the course of this production, the intense illumination drops away and darkness slides into the room. [And it’s here we pause and pay gratitude to the superb skill of lighting designer Elliot Griggs, who brings this into being in the deftest manner.]
This move from light to dark happens in opposition to Ibsen’s plot, which is based on revelations and the outing of hidden information. One of the playwright’s less well-known works, The Wild Duck doesn’t contain one of Ibsen’s famously explosive female characters (a Nora or a Hedda, or a Rita), but it does adhere to his obsession with the claustrophobia of families and the potential for domestic set-ups to shatter in one tiny moment.
Gregory Woods (Kevin Harvey) returns to where he grew up after a self-imposed period apart from his family. In fairly swift order, he takes it upon himself to make some revelations – ones, it should be noted, that weren’t the reason he came back, but only occurred to him once he was there. After renting a room from his old friend James Ekdal (Edward Hogg), Gregory decides to tell James that his wife Gina (Lyndsey Marshal) once had an affair with Gregory’s father, Charles (Nicolas Day). This information impacts on more than James and Gina’s relationship, as it could also mean their only child, Hedwig (Clara Read), is Charles’ daughter, a suggestion strengthened by Charles and Hedwig sharing the same degenerative eye condition thought to be hereditary.
The Almeida production of The Wild Duck deals with the idea of truth/lies or reality/fantasy in two ways. To start with, there’s the untruths that sustain the Ekdal family as written by Ibsen. Along with the hidden affair and disputed paternity are other fabrications (some might more softly call them ‘dreams’) that the family use to get themselves through what is otherwise a fairly stressful and impoverished day-to-day existence.
James is a doting father (particularly good at childish, imaginary games), but not so successful in other areas. A professional photographer who can’t use Photoshop, and picks his pants out of his arse with his back to the audience, James believes he is working on a great invention. It’s a marginally damaging lie distracting him from improving the family’s fortunes in the short-term as much as the long-, because James isn’t actually inventing anything, he’s playing Candy Crush and subletting his day job to a twelve-year-old. But it’s also the Steinbeckian dream that keeps him functioning.
Similarly, James’s elderly, alcoholic father Francis (Nicholas Farrell) recaptures his prior glory as a fantastic huntsman by roaming ‘The Forest’, an attic room filled with Christmas trees and an assortment of small animals waiting to be shot (this is where the real wild duck lives). Like his son, Francis’s fantasy is not without consequence – the animals get killed, his drinking remains unaddressed – but it allows him to retreat to the happier times he had before being imprisoned.
Icke then interweaves a whole additional level of reality/unreality into his staging by combining the performed scenes with fragments of commentary (often beginning ‘Henrik Ibsen wrote The Wild Duck in…’), snippets from Ibsen’s biography hinting at how the writer used the play as a means of re-scripting parts of his own life and audible stage directions. Elements of theatricality are also withheld before being introduced at drip-feed pace, notably the set design (Bunny Christie), which starts off as an almost-bare stage before gradually transforming into the Ekdal’s apartment at the same increments as the lighting (as it gets darker, the set becomes fuller).
Watching the earlier parts of The Wild Duck is deliberately frustrating. It feels like Icke is holding a big bag of sweeties labelled ‘theatre’, but he’ll only give you one jelly baby at a time, sometimes snatching away the rest of the body just as your teeth sink into the head. Please, Robert, I think, please just let me have the story. Please submerge me in the ice bucket feeling that is watching your creations. Please make me cry. Please make me listen to Bob Dylan on repeat for six months again.
And then, he does.
The genius of Icke’s The Wild Duck is that it delivers all the meta-theatrical cleverness without becoming self-obsessed bollocks (in this respect it’s similar to Dead Centre’s Chekhov’s First Play). And all the time it’s distracting the viewer by getting them to look at the puzzle pieces of the staging, it’s drawing them further into Ibsen’s work. Until, unaware, you’re standing right in the middle of the deep, dark Forest, and it turns out light vs. dark wasn’t a squabble over truth and lies after all, but the oldest metaphor of them all: light as life and darkness as death.
The Wild Duck is on until 1 December 2018 at the Almeida. Click here for more details.