There are, arguably, too many people with too many problems in The Wild Duck, but then a social utopia would hardly make for riveting theatre. Three generations under one roof are living under their own delusions: Old Ekdal (Irving Jones), whom playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) didn’t even bother to give a first name to, still thinks he is the hunter and shooter he was some decades ago, whilst his son Hjalmar (Dhvel Patel) firmly believes in his unstated and unknown invention – all the audience ends up knowing about it is that he’s invested a lot of time and effort into it, and there are several books dotted around the front room relating to it.
Young Hedvig, meanwhile (Gintare Smigelskyte at this performance, standing in for an indisposed Sofiyah Yeshin Darmy-Wong), is the proud owner of the wild duck of the show’s title, retained indoors and looked after because it was shot (that is, injured but not killed). But there’s an otherworldliness about her, too, clingy as she is towards her busy father and denied the opportunity to continue her education on account of her progressively failing eyesight.
No wonder Hjalmar’s friend Gregers (Kim Giersoe) seeks to shake things up a bit. He’s a principled man, believing in the idea expressed in the New Testament that knowing the truth shall make people free. Fair enough, given the collective number of proverbial skeletons in closets in this play.
But there’s a shock to the system when what Gregers believed would be a time of celebration or at least relief, ends up instead with Hjalmar’s family in an even greater state of disarray. Perhaps they were too far gone, or perhaps the story could be interpreted as providing freedom of sorts – however despondent Hjalmar has suddenly become, he is giving himself, and possibly his family too, a fresh start.
It’s this sort of ‘on the other hand’ thinking that makes for a good Ibsen production – and this production does well to present a number of ambiguities to be settled (or not) in the minds of the audience on the train or car home. The company may have seemed more than a little ‘on edge’ for whatever reason but this may well have been deliberate, sitting well with the almost imposing awkwardness of the situation that only intensified after the show’s off-stage critical incident takes place. As with other works in the Ibsen canon, it’s progressive with regards to the power afforded to female characters, particularly Hjalmar’s wife Gina (Angela Dix) – Hjalmar may rule the home, but it is Gina who governs.
At the heart of the story are some observations about what can happen in an environment where open communication is not always forthcoming. There’s a reference to some sort of ‘national disease’, probably Ibsen’s social commentary on Norwegian society at the time (the play was published in 1884), though there is something rather timeless about inter-family rivalries and people acting on incomplete information. The set really isn’t much to write home about: that dreaded phrase ‘simple but effective’ comes to mind. Either way, the play is heavy on symbolism – for instance, when photographs are being touched up, what else is being brushed aside?
Not the easiest of plays to watch, but dense and engaging in equal measure.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Booking to 27th September 2020