Review: Belvoir Sydney’s The Wild Duck, by Simon Stone and Chris Ryan after Henrik Ibsen, at the Barbican

Anita Hegh as Gina. Photo Heidrun Löhr

Anita Hegh as Gina. Photo Heidrun Löhr

Anything I perceive to threaten intimacy between actors and audience is bound to make me suspicious, if not outright hostile. Stage to ceiling glass on three sides separating actors and audience is not the way to win my heart, but that’s the first thing you see at the beginning of The Wild Duck, in a version by the Belvoir Sydney theatre company. This and an actual live duck looking at you behind the glass. I felt ambivalent to say the least. As ambivalent one can feel looking at a duck preening its feathers.

How wrong was I? Yes, the actors perform behind a glass screen in what looks like a square box, they wear mikes and the sound is explicitly designed for their voices to be heard through speakers, yet all these – and several other elements – build into something unbearably intimate, like skin on skin or the blood rushing in your ears. And if my first thought was around a contradiction (what kind of connection can be achieved with so many elements designed to separate?), it turns out the whole production is designed around contradictions: Bare open stage and mirroring distortions, very few props but a live duck, baroque music but unsentimental performances. I can’t pretend to understand how these contradictions work but it felt like this: a multifaceted onslaught – elegant yet relentless – that corrodes the defences. As we move through the story, the scenes start to bleed into each other, the same way private moments bleed into public manifestation and contradictions are no more. Distinctions require order and devastation makes it irrelevant.

I hadn’t seen The Wild Duck before, and in some ways I still haven’t: I have no idea how much of the plot or spirit of Ibsen’s play survives the transition, and frankly I don’t care. This version, by Simon Stone and Chris Ryan, is its own thing, with an effortless evocation of time and place – it’s modern but by no means vague, and unmistakably australian with an unstuffiness of character that only highlights the tragedy: these people could have a different fate, if only a word hadn’t been spoken or a silence hadn’t been kept.

Coming back to the sound design (by Stefan Gregory), the effect of the actors’ voices coming through the speakers was like having them talk to your ear, like their thoughts were scratching your brain. This was the opposite of alienating, it was almost claustrophobic.

Every actor on stage is brilliant, including the duck: Anita Hegh’s Gina visibly implodes under the weight of something she has forgotten a long time ago; Sara West as Hedvig captures the moment when a teenager understands the world with no resilience to process the implications; Brendan Cowell as Hjalmar has an easygoing blokeyness that includes – rather than excludes – direct access to an – easily crushed – tenderness; Dan Wyllie as Gregers has the destructive uncompromising edge of someone who was hurt young.

In the end, what the production reminded me of is the best of Ingmar Bergman: those small unspectacular moments that you only have to stop and look at, and then they appear like supernova explosions, precious, frightening and irreversible.

P.S. This is an appeal for anyone who might know the playlist of the production: I know that some of the baroque pieces are Bach, but nothing beyond that. Any help is welcome.

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