Festwochen: Rethinking Ibsen

Australian Simon Stone directs a crackling new adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck

Last year it was Kate Blanchett’s virtuosity in the Sydney Theatre Company’s uneven production of Botho Strauss’ Big and Small. This year’s Australian contribution to the Wiener Festwochen is Simon Stone’s, “after Ibsen” Wild Duck.

His ensemble goes for the jugular. Beyond the idealism, the notions of truth, “life-lies” and aesthetics associated with the Norwegian Modernist, this is a visceral distillation of Ibsen’s plot and dramaturgy. Stone’s play highlights the communal tragedy of an adolescent girl driven to suicide, a relatively incidental element in Ibsen’s original. While plot and characters are Ibsen’s, the dialogue is the work of Simon Stone and his dramaturge, Eamon Flack.

The exposition is episodic, pitched at a cracking pace; the actors hermetically sealed behind a glass fourth wall; the set is sparse, and hand props are minimal. After a fourteen-year, self-imposed exile, Gregers (Damon Herriman) returns home to be offered his father’s business. His father, Werle (John Gaden) simultaneously proclaims his engagement to a 28 year-old secretary along with his impending blindness.

Gregers is more his mother’s son and resents a past affair his father had while his mother was on her deathbed, fifteen years earlier. Intransigent, Gregers seeks refuge with his old school friend, Hjalmar Ekdal (Brendan Cowell) only to discover that Hjalmar has unknowingly married Werle’s former mistress. And they have a daughter, with macular degeneration, about to turn 15. Werle has set up Hjalmar, his wife Gina (Blazey Best) and their daughter Hedwig (Eloise Mignon) in their own home and business.

Simon Stone’s staging of The Wild Duck uses Ibsen’s tragic plot, but Stone and dramaturge Eamon Flacks insert original dialogue | Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Simon Stone’s staging of The Wild Duck uses Ibsen’s tragic plot, but Stone and dramaturge Eamon Flacks insert original dialogue | Photo: Heidrun Lohr

This production emphasises the Ekdal family bonds despite the underlying tensions of economic uncertainty, their prickly, adolescent ‘daughter’ and the ensuing dementia of Hjalmar’s father, Ekdal (Anthony Phelan). Old Ekdal escapes his past business failures and the humiliation of Werle’s patronage by tending an injured, wild duck, and by occasional forays hunting rabbits.

The mise en scene rides on unrelenting physical action with Stone including Old Ekdal giving his granddaughter a crash-course on how to use his double-barrel shotgun, ironically mindful of ‘standard safety practices’. Hedwig ‘falls for’ Gregers before discovering he is her half brother.

All the more poignant is Stone’s added scene of the Edkal family in blissful, domestic normalcy: Father, mother and child assist each other playfully with homework and business while grandpa tends the beloved duck, foraging enthusiastically in a water tank, that we sense replicates the glass wall encasing the actors along with our momentary reflections.

Atop the glass is the unrelenting, digital display of the minutes and days leading to Hedwig’s inevitable, heart-breaking end. The play might well have ended here but Stone provides another alternative to Ibsen’s denouement …

If the purpose of the glass wall is to protect us from the rebounding tennis ball, the gunshot (or a potentially irascible, live duck) it serves its purpose. However, after seeing Martin Kušej’s direction of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s, Die Bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant behind similar glass walls in Prague, I am not convinced this ‘device’ facilitates further “intimacy”.

While the audience in the first few rows was drawn below the introspective gaze (and hemlines) of the actors, the audience in the rows over the actor’s heads wouldn’t have shared the same ‘naturalness’, despite the hushed tones provided by microphones.

An enemy of the sanctimonious idealism of his time, Ibsen often consigned his utopian protagonists to suicide through which he also sought transcendence of what he called the “life-lie”. This production found a humanistic resolution to Ibsen’s play via Stone’s alternative coda: The parents, meeting outside the glass walls, try to pick meaning out of the rubble of their despair. It skims dangerously close to soapy sentimentality, but it works.

“It’s my thriller version of the genre,” Stone said, in justifying his choice. “Rather than the relative merits of truth … it’s awful; but you have to survive the death of your child.”

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