Rogues & Vagabonds

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…

Archive Feature • PAINFUL CLARITY • The Wild Duck • 2005

Donmar Warehouse in 2015 [Wikipedia]

Donmar Warehouse in 2015 [Wikipedia]

Non-seasonal tidings of discomfort and yawns after a Circle level endurance of The Wild Duck at the Donmar.

Michael Grandage’s production has been widely praised, and I have great respect for him as a director and a tiny tolerance of the play (I’m just no good with ornithological symbolism) and my reaction and that of my companions are offered in the spirit of the Hans Christian Andersen tale, that haunts the consciences of voyeurs everywhere, but of theatre-goers in particular.

In this wintry time of magical illusion and deceiving darkness, what new clothes is the Emperor wearing?

We were in agony in the Circle, in bum-numbing, sense-depriving pain. “We” were three people representing two generations, sexes and sizes but united in cramped buttocks and legs.

The critics have reviewed the production with enthusiasm, emphasising its clarity. The plot and character interpretations couldn’t be clearer.

Clarity is a vital component in theatre. What does it mean? One of my companions insists that the clearest instance of clarity she has ever had was Peggy Ashcroft’s performance as the Countess in an otherwise inaudible and messy All’s Well That Ends Well, inaugurating the doomed RSC residence at the Barbican. As a teenager sitting in the audience, she felt every word, every thought, every emotion demonstrated on the stage by the actress was communicated to her. There were acoustic difficulties at the Barbican in those days, but my friend heard every word of Ashcroft. I saw it too. I know. It was special. It should never be forgotten. It’s got nothing to do with the clearness of this Wild Duck which is not about clarity of acting and diction and lucidity of thought.

It has no acoustic problems at all, but suffers from a surfeit of over-clarification of interpretation that provokes more questions than it answers. So many reviewers have praised the clearness. The main effect of this is that you can see what a prat Ekdal is as soon as he appears. He is so obviously unappealing that you don’t understand why the other characters, particularly the women, put up with him.

The problem for us watching the play was twofold. It was boring and implausible. Ekdal’s nature is presented clearly to the audience, but his wife and daughter and his friend are all infatuated with him, and believe in him. The audience is not offered the opportunity to do that. You run out of patience with so many deluded people on stage. This would work fine in satire. In this case, after an agonising first half exposition, the play implodes in front of us without an illusion of Ekdal’s genius, or at least lovability, being maintained. We saw too soon that he was idle and self-deluded and selfish, that his invention would never be built.

This objective approach is properly Brechtian, but I don’t think it’s applicable to realistic social drama. Our alienation from Ekdal came too soon. We should have started at the same pace as the other characters. My companions recognized him as a real type. I was told that I’m Ekdal. They were being metaphorical: I don’t have a loft full of dead birds. But my companions made it clear that if I was completely obvious, they’d have given up on me long ago, even allowing for their fathomless feminine pity.

My younger companion felt it was essential to believe in Ekdal if she was to have empathy with Hedwig. She still wept at Hedwig’s fate, but she said she was weeping more for herself and a prematurely cut off relationship with her own father than for the character.

Is empathy necessary? The alternative, in Epic Theatre, is entertainment, and we didn’t get that either.

Grandage is one of the best theatrical story-tellers of our times. He shot Schiller into the new century for English-speaking audiences. He makes epic classical theatre thrilling and accessible. He tells Shakespeare’s tales clearly. There are plays which withstand floodlights shining on them and are buttressed by inherent dramatic irony. In the audience we sit like judge and jury, dispensing justice. We don’t need to empathize in order to understand.

The Wild Duck is a domestic psychological drama, not an epic. It’s a tricky play to present theatrically because it is, in effect, an illusion about delusions. I begin to see why Ibsen thought symbolism would help. This version is too earnestly intent on showing the audience as quickly as possible that the main characters are deluded. The actor playing Ekdal signals his flaws so that, realistically, we cannot believe that he believes in himself. “We should all be in love with Ekdal like the other characters are if the play’s to make sense,” said my girlfriend.

Both my companions complained they couldn’t even listen to the actor playing Ekdal during his earlier appearance, so tedious was his duologue with an affected Gregers. We are probably in a minority: both actors have been critically praised in the press and here on site. “I don’t believe it’s the same director as Don Carlos who had those two brilliant young men [Richard Coyle and Elliott Cowan] in it,” my younger companion hissed in my ear.

Later, she also listed Ekdal’s greasy looking hair as a charm deterrent. In a world dominated by images, I wouldn’t dare dismiss that as frivolous. All of us should take note.

It should also be emphasised that both actors playing Ekdal had fans in the audience, as we heard afterwards. “Gorgeous” was one adjective we heard used by both sexes applied to both men.

Sex is another vital proponent in theatre. It makes you concentrate. In this production, it’s got a disturbingly ambivalent entry, very intellectually challenging in the middle of all the clarity of plot and character. A curvaceous, theatrically knowing Hedvig, definitely fourteen going on twenty-four, is bounced by Ekdal on his knee. What are they trying to tell us? Did Ibsen know? It woke me up in the first half, but not with a good feeling.

It’s an earnest, worthy production, adjectives that condemn theatre as much as they praise. My mother, my other companion, said it was like very good Rep of the Fifties. “Earnest, worthy; none of the performances took off.” She felt that the interpretation of Gina suffered from the same over-explicitness that we identified in the men. She was too introspective and reserved, not open enough, so her secrets came as no surprise.

This is one-dimensional drama. It has its intellectual adherents, but I don’t believe that live theatre should be intellectually apprehended. You’d be better off reading a book about The Wild Duck on a well upholstered chair at home. On a technical level, the acting is not distinguished enough to distract from uncomfortable seating and over-plotting. There’s too much reliance on haw-haw, ho-hum elderly character acting, with venerable actors rumbling in their lower registers, and a relentless Ibsenite first act of long-winded explanation, unrelieved by phoney off-stage party noises.

There are physical demands on an audience from the sheer dullness of a production like this. We weren’t the only sufferers. I saw plenty of distracted faces during the play, though I admit that I didn’t hear a critical voice afterwards. What kind of experience are people expecting when they pay to go to the theatre nowadays?

Michael Brabazon © 2005

Originally published on R&V 29-12-05


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