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The Wild Duck

Belvoir presents THE WILD DUCK by Simon Stone with Chris Ryan after Henrik Ibsen in the Upstairs Theatre.

THE WILD DUCK written by Simon Stone, also the Director, with Chris Ryan, after Henrik Ibsen’s play (1884) of the same name, is a new contemporary Australian play.

This adaptation and re-writing, like Mr Stone’s other Ibsen inspired play (with Thomas Henning), THE ONLY CHILD (from Ibsen’s LITTLE EYOLF), as texts, presage a very good night in the theatre. Both of these texts are very interesting. This one better than the other, I felt. And while, if one is a committed Ibsenite, there are many things to ponder and discuss in the choices that Mr Stone and Ryan have made, using the original text as inspiration, this new play stands on its own.

It looks at a contemporary marriage and the forces it must confront when someone feels that all truths should be revealed and must be faced, if we as people are to build solid and ‘good’ lives. The righteous ‘do-gooder’ who determinedly wishes to be judge and whistle blower for the good of all. In this case Gregers Werle who “has come to believe that it is his mission to tell people ‘rock bottom’ truths about themselves and that by doing so he will liberate or at least lighten the burden of those who dwell in error.” The ensuing tragedy, in this version (as the original,in its way, did in its time) asks us, in a world where ‘political correctness’ and litigious contemporary extremities are pursued for personal beliefs at the expense of others, often blithely innocent and content with their lives and doing no social harm, just what is useful or good to tell. Is it justifiable to take away the life-lie from the average man (woman) and destroy their happiness? How much truth does one need to tell? Are some truths better kept quiet? Is the old Russian proverb “Truth is good but happiness is better” worth considering?

The fourteen characters in the original have been reduced to just six. Werle (John Gaden), Gina (Anita Hegh), Hjalmar (Ewen Leslie), Hedwig (Eloise Mignon), Ekdal (Anthony Phelan), Gregers (Toby Schmitz). These six characters carry most of the weight of the original, and sometimes, in this version, perforce of the original plot, themes and symbols, which Mr Stone and Ryan play with, more or less. This is, in the mood of the Ibsen, THE WILD DUCK, a tragi-comedy and a gloriously thrilling, sophisticated, soap opera, melodrama. Beside me, the other night, some young women gasped and involuntarily raised their hands to their faces at the gradual revelation of the possible parentage of the young Hedwig. Shocked and excited. Mr Ibsen would have been pleased.

What is told are the circumstances of an ordinary contemporary family. We see them running a small family business, helping out with the school home work of their only child and pottering around with the older parent and his odd, old hobbies (a wild life sanctuary in the attic!), all innocently happy (highly, contemporaneously identifiable), being invaded with the unhappiness of a bourgeois, richer family and the unfortunate remnants of connected past spheres of influence, tainting and ultimately destroying the ordinary family with a tragedy of Classical Greek Theatre proportions. A gun shot rings out, that like Nora’s door slam at the end of THE DOLL’S HOUSE, will reverberate well after the play’s end in both the fictional world of the Ekdals and the real world of the audience.

Played in a black walled set (Set Design, Ralph Myers) with black carpet, surrounded, in front, by glass walls, the audience are invited to look at the unfolding dramas of these characters in a precise linear order (each scene is introduced with a very specific day and time note-clock, above the set), as if scientifically studying in a terrarium, the activities of pet animals. These animals/humans are dressed in ordinary, recognizable day to day clothes (Costume, Tess Schofield) and because of the highly theatrical glass walls, which at first appeared, to me, to be a barrier between us and what was happening, and the magnification of the actor’s voices, using microphones (visible on the side of their faces), a hyper real theatrical concentration slowly evolved as I/we the audience, watched the actors at work.

That we are watching the characters shift scene location without realistic set changes, but with carefully chosen props, to help give identity to the worlds of the scenes, (school satchels, lap tops, gym packing bags, a live duck! in real water, a practical shooting hunter’s rifle that is fired at us) it is as if we are in, what is, in the film industry, called a blue/green screen space, (in this case, literally, a black-screen space). In this space the actors act out their scenarios with say, a dinosaur attack, (think JURASSIC PARK), which is supplied by computer generated images (CGI) later. In the Belvoir Upstairs Theatre, instead of CGI, our own imaginations supply the set dressings of the locations and it is definitely part of the thrill of the performance. Mostly, on my part, at least, an unconscious one. The audience is definitely, if it is to have a good time, invited to actively participate, not just as watchers, but, as creatives. This is, of course, what we always do when we are swept away by a production, whether it is set dressed or not, but in this case it is more subtly demanded. The unconscious work we do, helps us to suspend our disbeliefs or judgements about the play’s content or melodrama, because we are asked to participate viscerally and so are partly responsible for the imaginative experience and its relative vividness. Our commitment heightens our involvement. Theatre!

The major difference in the success of this Ibsen appropriation that Mr Stone has made, in contrast to the earlier work, THE ONLY CHILD, is the quality of the acting. (Although, as said, the writing I feel is better,tighter.)All six of these actors are marvellous to watch in this almost cinematic naturalism/realism, aided by the artificial communication of not only the text but the breathing of the actors through the head-microphones. Such is the projection of sound (Sound Designer and Composer, Stefan Gregory) that the lubricity of the noise of the kiss is very raw to experience, uncomfortable, almost, in its intimacy.
James Waites in his two blogs on THE WILD DUCK and SPEAKING IN TONGUES talks particularly about the contemporary acting styles appearing on our stages. In discussing a production of TENDER a few years ago I remarked about the evolutionary changes perceptible in the acting given by two actresses of different generations, Kate Box and Heather Mitchell:

“The two women characters are particularly outstandingly written and played. The wife, Sarah (Kate Box) is played with a masterly sense of the whole arc of the journey well under a craftsman’s control. The performance has the breathless sense (most of the time) of being experienced anew in front of your eyes. It is contemporary acting at a most breathless reality, (one holds one’s breath in anticipation of the next possibility), a sense that it is happening for the first time in front of your eyes: NOW. The technical feats of the vocal work are admirable: the use of both volume and pitch to guide you through the delicacies of the sometimes heightened poetic reality of the writing are marvellous. It is powerful in its whole affect. The mother figure, Yvonne (Heather Mitchell) is played with great emotional wallop. One is slightly overwhelmed at first at the “histrionic” emotional entrance that the actress brings right at the beginning of the revelation of the character, but as each scene unfolds the careful and sensitive artistry of thought through choices eases the first uncertain response that I had to the acting. … For me, it is interesting to observe the generational differences to acting that these two actresses have to their work. The quietly evolving acceptable expression of how to tell the story is, if you watch closely subtly different. Both are wonderful but the results are contrasted delicately, significantly. One is listen, receive, respond. The other is in action, gently and expressively, all the time. One is more cinematic than the other. One is more theatrical than the other. If you look at a film like PICNIC one can see the evolution of acting for screen in front of your eyes, starkly. On one extreme, you can witness Rosalind Russell giving a “theatrically “ histrionic “chew the scenery” style of performance, in contrast to the Strasberg “method” of Kim Novak, where it seems little is happening, it is all sub-textual. (Arguably). Bridging these two contrasts is William Holden utilising both approaches as required. Here is a history lesson in acting styles and evolution captured in the time capsule of a Hollywood film. I reckon you can see it here in these two remarkable performances in TENDER.”

Here in the Belvoir production of THE WILD DUCK you will see most of these actors in the new cinematic/theatrical naturalism.

This ‘new’ form of acting for the theatre asks that each actor play their work as if they are the centre of the universe. What I call the ‘Sun Practice’. Every character should play the scene as if they are the energy force, the centre of the play (the text responsibilities will ultimately clarify the storytelling). It is not a dynamic life pattern we are asked to believe in unless every actor from the maid/waiter up to the king/queen are pursuing their needs passionately. Otherwise the scene can have a pre-destined look of recitations. The waiter does not hand the scene over to the king by merely serving the drinks. The waiter has a goal to achieve in the opportunity he has in serving drinks to the king and he had best pursue that passionately for that opportunity may not happen again. The subtle sub-textual ‘obstacles’ of personal need that the waiter offers the king, will affect the king and cause his intentions to lift a notch in pursuit of his unique needs and so the scene comes alive in a much more heightened way. What happens in the play is what the writer has written but the underpinning of the sub-textual life is much more vital. As in life we all play out our needs/ wants from an ‘I’ centre, and we take in what other people do and say according to how useful it is to us in achieving what we want. We seize the opportunities that others give us to accelerate our goals. In the older generation of acting it was mostly: “your turn, now, my turn, now yours etc” One ‘did’ and the other one ‘listened’, each in turn. While that still happens, what is now happening, additionally, is that, as in life, all the characters pursue their objectives passionately, all the time. So, that now there is overlapping and simultaneous dialogue and physical action, as well as the single clarity of line that we are all familiar with. What in the older generation was an organisation of focus for the audience by the actors and director, as each character took their turn in the story telling revelations and looked real, now, happen simultaneously. There is a plethora of offers, of information, all happening at once. The audience has now to choose where they are looking and what they are hearing. Their empathy for each character will filter their concentrations. This is, let me reassure you, subtly refined organisationally by the actors /director/writer, but gives the appearance, once again, of natural behaviour. This elision of action (vocal and physical) on stage is possible because of the unconscious absorption skills our culture as acquired as a result of cinema and the speedier cognitive modern media gadgets. We the audience can read a scene faster than in past times because of the unconscious training we have acquired from our new life habits. The clues and our ability to read them are there now in greater less edited (though, still edited) detail. We are much more participatory in how the storytelling informs us and each of us can have more divergent absorptions.

This is what we are witnessing with the acting from most of the company of THE WILD DUCK (to a lesser extent in SPEAKING IN TONGUES). Add the production sleights of hands: the short vignettes of most of the writing in the scenes of THE WILD DUCK are played at blistering, complex, communicating speeds by the actors, overlapping and simultaneous speaking, both, vocally and physically, and, then, in the scene black outs, the audience is kept abreast of the tempo by being swept further into continuous speed with a brisk classical score and later a blasting of heavy metal dysfunction that keeps them aloft with the forward energy of the unfolding events. The ultimate, almost operatic scoring of choral triumph, in the scene before last, almost trumps the recent daring of underlining contemporary melodrama in the histrionic Tilda Swinton epic I AM LOVE (a directorial gestural hoot!). The lighting of the early family scenes in warm colours, suddenly switch to blaring, glaring flourescents at the shocking revelation scene only to move back to a half warm, half flourescent state for the aftermath (Lighting, Niklas Pajanti). Theatrical 3D in surround sound!

All praise to these daring artists.

The subtle game playing by Mr Schmitz in his character’s past love revelations to poor Hjalmar, is shockingly dense with its levels of glittering intentions. The missionary zeal of a disappointed and disaffected human being is horrifying to observe as he spins his truths for the world to accept, careless as to the consequences. The confused cognizance of Mr Leslie as Hjalmar is heartbreaking. The helter skelter of the scenes of confrontation between Mr Leslie and Ms Hegh, later in the play, are breathtaking. The depth of raw feeling that Mr Phelan exposes in his long monologue of regrets is grief making to hear. That Eloise Mignon, arguably, the other wild duck of the play is totally believable as Hedwig and grippingly pathetic, that the subtle corruption of Werle played by John Gaden is insidiously casual and attractive, all make for a good night in the theatre a surety.

But the key element for me was the presence of a “wild” duck on stage. Its vulnerability and the joy in a later scene where it is stood in an aquarium of water, where, during the action of the scene it ducks and dips into the water, is where the production acquires a true tenderness and the symbol that Ibsen has worked through his play is taken literally by Stone and Ryan and naturalistically manifested in front of us for powerful identification and ownership by the audience – a kind of masterstroke of empathetic emotional persuasion.

In finishing my response I did feel that Mr Schmitz’s character Gregers, is not fully revealed, in the writing. Perhaps his position in the play is lost or becomes unanchored with the excision of Doctor Relling from the original, someone who pinpoints and pins Gregers in the Ibsen. Another scene or…?

Further, James Waites in his extensive writing on this production, (see his blog connection) views the new ending to the play as being a strength. I, on the other hand, felt that it was gratuitous and mawkish. That the conventions of the evening were erased with it happening outside of the glass box was also a convention let down that diminished its impact. The gunshot and all the ambiguity that raced through one’s mind when it rang out, was where I thought the play should end. The ambiguity of what happened was tantalising. Having a coda explanation of so much as an attached scene was too defining and managerial. Like the ending to THE ONLY CHILD, Mr Stone reveals his romantic inclinations again. The modern statistics about the collapse of personal relationships as a consequence of such tragedy, especially the death of a child, tell us that it is unlikely that they will survive. Ibsen was tougher on our society. On himself. The play was finished in an utterly conventional way, it left nothing to be discussed after in the foyer, except, what a good night in the theatre we had had.

I, and my close audience, loved it. See it.


IBSEN, a biography by Michael Meyer. Dobleday & Company, 1971.

IBSEN. A Critical Study by John Northam. Cambridge University Press,1973.

IBSEN by Harold Clurman. Collier Books,1977.

4 replies to “The Wild Duck”

  1. I enjoyed this show too and have enjoyed reading your blogs about the plays. I have seen 5 of the 9 plays you have reviewed this month so thanks for the interesting reviews, it helps me see the shows from another perspective as i am not very educated about theatre. I love going to see theatre shows though, i've rediscovered it lately.

  2. It was a riveting performance , no question.

    Perhaps Mr Stone was emboldened in taking the risks of the adaptation and design because he knew he had a company of actors who could hold us with their every move and utterance. John Gaden – pillar of the Nimrod /Belvoir communities – dripping oily charm and humour ; Anthony Phelan – a big man with child-like wonder in his eyes ; Eloise Mignon , completely at home on this set bereft of furnishings ; Toby Schmitz , conveying vulnerability and awkwardness – notwithstanding his incendiary role in the drama; Anita Hegh , battling for understanding where she most needs it ; Ewan Leslie, plunged from boyish easinesss to the depths of turmoil. All made significant contributions to the success of the enterprise …. the success of the 'experiment' .
    Mr stone takes an Ibsen plot and refashions it using contemporary idiom and references. There was a point where ,as the conversation meandered across homework-computer- what's -for- dinner territory ,I wondered: " how is this better than five acts with domestic servants? Did Ibsen really want to sound like 'Neighbours-in -the- Rafters'….Perhaps these questions can only be answered by watching the play as it was written . For now I would suggest that the danger of alienation was averted thanks to the quality of the acting. It yanked me back from the edge of doubt and kept me on the journey.
    I was less convinced than you , Kevin , by one key musical choice. The blast of rock music that filled the auditorium in the darkness between two late scenes felt excessive. Sure , we get an end-of-an-era feeling, but it almost felt as if the efforts of the cast were being belittled….as if only some loud rock and roll could convey anguish.

    I left the theatre thinking how wonderful a writer Ibsen is.
    Mr Stone has put new clothes on the old bloke and made him look modern. And the clothes have been chosen with great care. We look at him in a new light – but with the admiration we always feel at a great performance of "Ghosts' or "A doll's House" and the other Ibsen plays where questions of morality sneak across the horizon and burst with shattering force..

  3. Thanks John,

    Certainly, I agree, the acting was what kept the production going for me and distracted my attention from the Ibsen diversions and excisions that this team made to the original. Still, as I mentioned, a worthwhile evening in the theatre. THE ONLY CHILD, Mr Stone's other Ibsen adaptation did not have as strong a company and its writing problems sat more obviously, uncomfortably.

    Someone remarked to me, at the forum around this production at Belvoir a couple of Sundays ago, that this work may represent the revival of the melodrama as a contemporary form (a positive, is meant). “Neighbours in the Rafters” or “The Wild Duck” by Simon Stone and Chris Ryan, after Henrik Ibsen!

    I also have the feeling that the authentic Ibsen text, when scrupulously examined by any really good creative team, would still attract an audience, and win hands down over this new work. This new Australian play, indeed, has a great debt of gratitude to acknowledge for its effect,however great the differences.

    Some people regard Ibsen as a genius,and the depth of his instinctive and learnt insights into the human condition, resonates still, powerfully when reading the text and simply needs the respect and the energy of really insightful, skilful and committed artists to do it justice in translation, without such a radical adaptation. It would be interesting,for instance, to have May-Brit Ackerholt translate/adapt one of the plays: GHOSTS, or better, one of the later, more surreal texts, such as JOHN GABRIEL BORKMAN or WHEN WE DEAD AWAKEN for Sydney audiences. All three have casts that may fit the modest economic constraints of our theatre companies and have the relative interest of not having been seen by many Australian theatre goers.

    To see an 'authentic' Ibsen could possibly put the Stone/Ryan version of THE WILD DUCK into an interesting context and rattle the justifying hue and cry over the necessity to be so radical in treatment. I was slightly aghast at the Belvoir forum when Mr Stone suggested that his ruling premise for this adaptation was one of economics. Belvoir could simply not afford more actors than the six available, and hence, the version. Cut the duck, the glass walls and I'm sure the money saved could permit the hire of another actor, at least for the restoration of Dr Relling, from the original, and you might have an even more interesting play. Mr Stone confessed that GHOSTS was the original choice (only 5 actors!).

    I recommend thoroughly a wonderful essay called SUBSEQUENT PERFORMANCES by Dr Jonathan Miller, as a guide to discussion.

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