At the heart of Ibsen’s Wild Duck is the killer concept of the ‘life-lie’ – the big fib that we all rely on, consciously or not, in order to get by. It’s cognitive dissonance at its most benevolent. The question is what happens when a well-meaning Samaritan comes along to kick the psychological crutches away. It’s testament to both the self-sufficiency and sublimity of this new adaptation from Sydney’s Belvoir St theatre company that it updates the script without mentioning life-lies at all – yet the idea reverberates long after the curtain falls.
As with any play worth its salt, it doesn’t take much to haul the plot into the present. Gregers Werle returns home from an itinerant absence to find that his wealthy father, a silver fox bagging a much younger bride, is going blind. Sniffing out scandal, Gregers discovers that Hedvig, the teenage daughter of his childhood friend Hjalmar, is suffering from the same macular degeneration. It doesn’t take him long to realise that Hjalmar’s whole life is built on a lie, nor for him to reveal that Hedvig’s mother Gina is the one who laid the foundations. Gregers’ decision to tell Hjalmar the truth is the hinge that this world flips on. And when it does it’s a heartbreaker.
Ralph Myers’ design – a sealed glass box, a Petri dish of a set which heightens gesture, feeling and sound – requires microphones, at first a cause for wariness. Yet it comes off brilliantly, thanks both to the technical purity and the cast’s vocal verve. From the first of many snappy scenes the audience are put at ease by the humorous, ominous Australian drawl, the emotional lives of the company bursting at the seams. And there’s not a dud round: Dan Wyllie’s attractive, asexual Gregers; Sara West’s delightfully obnoxious yet ultimately poignant Hedvig; Richard Piper’s gruff and forgetful Ekdal senior, touchingly obsessed with his fake forest in the attic. Finally there is Brendan Cowell’s magnificent slacker Hjalmar, a layabout pseudo-artist who devolves from adoring father playing the beached whale to distraught wretch hurling his daughter across the stage.
The only lull in the structure is a reconciliation scene at the play’s end, after Stefan Gregory’s audacious, swelling sound brings us to the pitiable pinnacle of the tragedy. Even then, it’s an interesting addition to the original – a muffled echo, a glimpsed ghost of the lives we’ve seen destroyed. It’s a small scruple that doesn’t affect the stride of this masterful production.
A real duck does its very best to steal the show, winning over the crowd with the barest ruffle of its wings. But it’s no mere gimmick: it provides a taster of both the tender fragility of the present and the dread inevitability of what is to come. Besides, the production is too strong to run the risk of being upstaged by such fowl play. Director Simon Stone and co-writer Chris Ryan have happily revived my faith in modern relocations of classic plays. Fly to it.