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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Wild Duck
Almeida Theatre  Autumn 2018

Henrik Ibsen's play is an object lesson in the dangers of insisting on too much truth and unfettered honesty in human relations. 

Director Robert Icke's adaptation modernises the setting, language and sensibilities and repeatedly breaks the theatrical frame to have characters speak their asides, thoughts, comments on the play and even stage directions. 

His changes neither help nor harm the play particularly. 

Rich man's son Gregory Woods has extended his anger at his father Charles to a general hatred of hypocrisy and lies, and then to the conviction that all the evils of the world would be eradicated if we lived lives of total truth and honesty, not even allowing ourselves the occasional comforting fantasy. 

Unfortunately Gregory finds the perfect subject for experiment in his old friend James Ekdal, who is proud of having built a happy family and modestly successful career for himself, especially after his father, Charles's former business partner, was disgraced by a financial fraud that we quickly guess was Charles's fault.

Gregory spots that, far from being independent, James owes his livelihood to secret infusions of cash from the presumably guilty-feeling Charles, and that it is no coincidence that his wife was formerly Charles's mistress and his daughter resembles the older man more than he. 

Small spoiler alert: Gregory dumps all this truth on James and then is surprised when that doesn't make him or anyone else onstage happier. 

And so the play warns dramatically against both butting into other people's lives and undervaluing what a minor character calls 'life lies,' the small fantasies and self-delusions we allow ourselves in order to go on living.

(The title refers to an actual Ekdal family pet, which becomes identified with the daughter and with the life lies as a symbol of something of great value that should not be lightly sacrificed.) 

Professors and others who care about such things are surprised to find Ibsen seeming to make an about-face from such plays as Ghosts and An Enemy Of The People, which put an absolute premium on truth-speaking. 

All that matters here is whether the play works as a play. And despite Robert Icke's fiddling with the text, it does. 

The characterisations and incidental plot turns might be spelled out a little more baldly than in Ibsen's subtler original – Gregory's Oedipal idealisation of his mother and hatred of his father, for example – and the meta-theatrical running commentary on the play is more self-satisfiedly clever than really useful, but they don't hurt things. 

Kevin Harvey sensitively lets us see from the start that Gregory may be acting out his own private demons but sincerely believes he is doing good, so he is never merely the villain. 

And in a nice counterpart Nicholas Day never leaves us in any doubt that the elder Woods is a total bastard while still making believable and part of the man his softer feelings. 

As James, Edward Hogg has what might seem the simplest character, as the totally happy man who becomes totally unhappy; his not-inconsiderable achievement is making them both ring true and hold our sympathy. 

Lyndsey Marshal offers the must subtle and multilayered portrayal of them all as the loving and supportive wife whose depth becomes more evident as we realise she is choosing to carry the burden of a few too many secrets. 

The Wild Duck really doesn't have too much to tell us that it doesn't telegraph long in advance of eventually spelling it all out. Ibsen's achievement, and that of director Icke and his cast, is in clothing the thesis in an involving human drama.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  The Wild Duck - Almeida Theatre 2018  
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