Review - The Wild Duck at the Almeida Theatre
We’re living in a post-truth world, apparently: facts matter less and that’s shaping our world. What Robert Icke’s new version of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck does is ask what ‘truth’ is, a complex system of lies built into a web that becomes known as our truth. With his radically self-aware production, Icke will put you on edge and question everything you think you know.
It starts subtly, Kevin Harvey approaches the edge of the stage with a microphone in hand to remind us to switch off our phones. Nothing revolutionary about that, but the microphone becomes the mouthpiece of both the actors’ narration, giving context about the play and Ibsen’s life when he wrote the piece, and the characters’ consciousness. Throughout the first act, the characters break the fourth wall to reveal the truth behind what they’re really thinking, while the actors tell us about Ibsen’s life: he fathered an illegitimate child with a maid.
Updated to a modern setting, Icke pushes Ibsen’s characters to their limit in a first act that’s naturalistic and deeply enticing. As Gregers Woods returns to his hometown after 15 years of a solitary life following the death of his mother. He reunites with his ageing, pompous father Charles, long-time friend James Ekdal and family. But with him, he brings questions, uncertainty, and chaos to the Ekdal family: James, wife Gina and daughter Hedy.
But it boils over after the interval in a second half full of revelation, tension and tragedy. As James begins to suspect he is not Hedwig’s biological father, Edward Hogg fills the character with an anxious rage: a man who believes he’s been played and deceived for over a decade about the only thing in his life that matters. He is sobering as a despairing man whose life spirals apart, as is Lyndsey Marshal as his wife who loses everything: both are terrific.
As the plot intensifies, each character grips the microphone to address the audience, but other characters snatch away their want to snap out of the world. Where they were escaping the scene – their reality – they become unable to shy away from the truth, and it’s oh so satisfying to see that happen.
There are great performances too from Clara Read, a Matilda alumnus who, on press night, played Hedwig with a delicate and distraught child caught up in an adult world, Harvey who begins as an almost smug protagonist but ends up a jittering ball of chaos himself, and a real duck.
One of the biggest joys is Bunny Christie’s simple yet surprising design. She and lighting designer Elliot Griggs utilise the Almeida’s space sparingly in the first act: a relatively bare set is lit by bright white light that fills the auditorium. But at the foot of the second act is a reveal subversively executed by Icke and the team.
This play has the most tragic conclusion a play could have, and by that point, Icke has managed to open you up, make you think about the world around you (as well as the world you don’t know), and pushed you to the limits of nerve and emotion.
The Wild Duck is at the Almeida Theatre until 1st December.