The Wild Duck review, Almeida Theatre: Robert Icke brings irresistible emotional clout

Lyndsey Marshal (Gina), Edward Hogg (James), Clara Read (Hedwig) and Nicholas Farrell (Francis) in The Wild Duck at the Almeida Theatre - Almeida Theatre
Lyndsey Marshal (Gina), Edward Hogg (James), Clara Read (Hedwig) and Nicholas Farrell (Francis) in The Wild Duck at the Almeida Theatre - Almeida Theatre

In Robert Icke’s sometimes irritating, certainly radical deconstruction – or should that be reconstruction – of what is arguably Henrik Ibsen’s finest play, we are never allowed to forget we are watching theatre. Actors wander on to a bare stage as if to a rehearsal, one tells us to turn our mobile phones off, another borrows a jacket from a lady in the front row. Only in the second act does some furniture accrue (the gradual appearance of the set is meant to remind us of a developing photograph). Frequent asides, on a microphone, inform us what characters really think, of the autobiographical elements in the play, that its narrative may even have acted as a way of covering up Ibsen’s poor treatment of his illegitimate child.

Icke’s form with reinventing the classics as an adaptor/director, most notably Aeschylus’s Oresteia and Schiller’s Mary Stuart, has made him one of the most feted talents in modern theatre. And despite the self-consciousness, the whiff of a lecture, here again the evening builds to a climax of immense emotional power. Icke makes our own absorption in the “pretence” of theatre – that we care so darn much for the characters – make tangible the great theme of the play: that a man’s “life lie” is crucial to his survival. Tear down our willingness to be deceived, and we are left empty.

The Wild Duck tells of a small family unit. In this modernised version they are the ineffectual James Ekdal (Edward Hogg), his kind, broken father Francis (Nicholas Farrell), his competent wife Gina (Lyndsey Marshal), and their loving daughter Hedwig (Clara Read), who keeps a wounded wild duck as a pet. Into this group comes an old friend, Gregory Woods (Kevin Harvey) who, knowing of his father’s past affair with Gina and believing “the truth will set you free”, tells James of it, with catastrophic consequences. There are other secrets too, as with all Ibsen, and none pretty.

As Icke gradually introduces the mechanics of his craft, so we succumb to his stage lie. With sleight of hand, the duck, which we had assumed was still being “played” by a handbag, is replaced by a real mallard. The scene when the Ekdals boogie together is utterly disarming. And when, just as we reach the most awful scene in the play, an enchantingly beautiful part of the set is revealed in a spot where we had thought only bare air hung, it’s a bravura touch of magic. Let me stop your heart with this piece of artifice, Icke seems to be saying.

Superb performances assist. Harvey as Gregory may be infuriatingly “right on, or is that left on”, but he is seductive and at times humane, abetted by the fact Icke has made him the audience’s chief confidant and added a twist to the end. We aren’t always sure whose side to be on. Hogg nails his sympathetic twit of a character and no one can stand and emote quite like Marshal. Touching support is provided by Farrell in particular, but perhaps the laurels of the show I saw go to the acutely vulnerable performance of 13-year-old Read (she is one of two children performing the role). “You won’t go up and hurt her when I’m gone?” she says, in fear for the safety of her duck, in the text’s most plangent line. The impulse of the narrative will claim a different victim.

Perhaps the message here is that what is most real is subjective experience rather than objective truth. “I don’t know if I love you but it’s my best guess that I do,” says Gina. From the dark depths of pain at the play’s end, the house lights jerk on. Ouch, I felt, don’t do that. But Icke was only bringing us back to truth’s cold light.