Containment. Confinement. Inescapable circumstances. Voyeurism. As soon as the lights go up on Simon Stone and Belvoir Sydney’s The Wild Duck, we know immediately what we’re in for, because we see it right before our eyes in the form of a rectangular glass set. There’s a live duck flapping on cue trapped inside, an ever-present symbol of the transgressions that plague the play’s constituents.
This Ibsen revamp is quick and sharp, shooting directly to each plot point as if they’re all acutely aware of some looming deadline. Scenes proceed in rapid-fire succession, each a tiny cliffhanger in a series of revelations. It’s as if Stone is writing for a TV soap opera, cutting to commercial before the characters have time to react to the news they’ve just been given. It’s an exciting way to build tension, and even the music has a way of putting us on edge: Stefan Gregory‘s wild violin composition rushes forth in the frequent blackouts, only to be cut short mid-phrase as the lights flood up.
This tale of infidelity, violence, lies and betrayals wouldn’t be out of place in a prime-time context, with its made-for-television melodramatic tendencies, but Stone’s adaptation is classy and fresh. There’s something about the wide open, unfurnished playing space set behind an angled glass wall that gives it a different kind of confinement than your typically stuffy drawing-room box set. The characters are something almost like lab specimens, and we’re behaviourists in white coats, taking notes on clipboards, calculating probable outcomes from the drama unfolding before us.
That’s not to say the production is clinical; quite the opposite. Steve Rodgers as Hjalmar Ekdal is the warm beating heart at the center of all this mess, and his slouchy naturalism gives this character an incredibly realistic feel; he’s the guy waiting in line next to me at the shops, the guy pushing his kids in the swing at the park, the guy having a quiet beer or three at my local on a Sunday afternoon. His life falls apart and we all just want to hug him and tell him it will be ok; he effortlessly elicits that kind of automatic sympathy from the moment he speaks.
Anthony Phelan as Ekdal the elder keeps us guessing, as we’re never sure if he’s inebriated, delusional, or suffering from dementia; but he becomes crystal clear about matters when circumstances demand it. Airlie Dodds as Hedvig achieves that curious teenage mix of vulnerability, defiance, playfulness and sadness. She tries to pretend she knows everything, but when faced with the prospect of circumstances she’s entirely unprepared for, she cannot cope. Each of the cast understands well his or her function within this family unit and manage to simulate that attraction-repulsion that exists between loved ones.
My first impression of the set design was that I would feel a barrier between myself and the actors, disrupting that natural flow of energy from the stage to the audience that is key to successful live theatre. First impressions can be wrong: it’s exactly this staging that gives Stone’s adaptation its unique quality, and the performers are so very good at what they do that their presence penetrates the glass wall. The body mics help to put us directly inside the space with them, while still sitting safely out of the fray.
The climax hits like a ton of bricks, and the denouement isn’t nearly as sad as you might expect, signaling that Stone believes we humans are ultimately resilient creatures, just like our wild duck. As for our young daughters? Look around us. They’re in more danger than they ought to be.
The Wild Duck runs at the Heath Ledger Theatre until Sunday, March 13. For more information and tickets, visit the Perth festival website here.