Review: The Wild Duck, Belvoir Sydney at Barbican

“There are things not everybody needs to know”

You’ve got to love an adaptation that ruffles a few feathers and Simon Stone and Chris Ryan’s take on The Wild Duck for Belvoir Sydney certainly does that, quite literally in one case as the show features a live duck that paddles the stage in a striking opening image. Part of the Barbican’s International Ibsen festival, this is a startlingly contemporary look at the Norwegian classic which strips it to its spine (as Stone says in a programme note) and reimagines it significantly as a modern fable about secrets and lies (and a duck).

Encased in the confines of Ralph Myer’s clear perspex box and dramatically illuminated by Niklas Pajanti’s utterly complete lighting design, the family drama of the Ekdals and the Werles play out to levels of intensity normally associated with Greek tragedy. And under this scrutiny, there’s nowhere for them, or us, to hide – the private grief of Anita Hegh’s catatonic Gina is exposed like a raw wound for nigh on 20 minutes, the uncontrollable anger of Brendan Cowell’s Hjalmar literally bounces off the walls, the target for Hedwig’s shotgun practice is quite simply the audience.

And released from formal representations of place, Stone is free to elide precise shards of scenes with monitors giving times down to the minute to offer a nominally formal structure. But more often this is a production that demands to be felt as events bleed into and feed into each other as familial harmony slowly cracks and then completely shatters under pressure. Stefan Gregory’s vividly constructed score is crucial here, jagged phrases of elegant strings giving way to crashing rock at the key moment as light and sound floods the box and emotion floods the heart.

The quiet devastation with which the play ends gives way to the production’s single most powerful moment – an extraordinary darkened silence which extends far longer than one could dream for, before the booming wave of applause starts. There’s something magical in a piece of theatre that can genuinely shut people up and to cavil that it ain’t like the Ibsens that you’re used to is to miss the point – this is Ibsen that is unafraid to be different and powerful with it, knowing full well it can co-exist with more traditional interpretations of this ever-popular playwright.

Running time: 85 minutes (without interval)
Programme cost: £4
Booking until 1st November

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