The Wild Duck
nytheatre.com review by David Koteles
October 25, 2006
In the BAM Next Wave Festival's presentation of the National Theatre of Norway's production of The Wild Duck, director Eirik Stubø has pared down Henrik Ibsen's text into one of the leanest, hippest, most contemporary plays to land in New York in many years. This is a radical but vital and exciting re-imagining of the play, which manages to be both faithful to Ibsen and completely fresh.
Although rarely performed in the United States, The Wild Duck is, according to Stubø, "a national treasure" in Norway. As well known there as Hedda Gabler or A Doll House, it's the first play taught to children in schools. Indeed, even a national airline, Vildanden (the play's Norwegian title), is named after the classic play. (Note to self: avoid airlines that name themselves after gloomy plays with characters that suffer horrible fates.)
Audible gasps by BAM audience members revealed that many on this side of the Atlantic do not know the play—much to my surprise—and since the play is infrequently staged here, I won't divulge any spoilers now. But basically, the plot involves photographer Hjalmar Ekdal and his family, who all live in his photographer's darkroom—quite literally—and this is where much of the action takes place. Being a photograph retoucher is merely the most obvious of symbols in this overtly poetic, symbol-laden yet genuinely stirring drama. Hjalmar's life, it appears, is terrific; with his successful business and his dreams of being an inventor, his beautiful wife Gina and their smart and precocious daughter Hedvig—if not picture perfect, it is at least curiously happy. Then Hjalmar's long-estranged childhood friend, Gregers Werle, rents a spare room in his home, much to the displeasure of the skeptical Gina. Gregers seems dead-set on exposing his oldest chum to a healthy dose of honesty about his wife's past and his daughter's future, even if it means jeopardizing the happiness of the Ekdal family. The wounded titular wild duck is both a symbol and an actual offstage pet of young Hedvig—who learns about making sacrifices to keep her family together.
Stubø's inventive staging creates uncomplicated, stark pictures, and his character work is understated and subtle. As with his drastic edits to the text, he keeps his staging sparse, and what remains is only what is necessary. Yet even on his enormous empty stage, these small actions don't get lost but, rather, amplified. This production feels large and important, almost visionary. It's a striking debut by Stubø, the company's new artistic director.
While this is one of those productions where the director is clearly the star, the actors are well worth the price of admission themselves. Although performed in Norwegian (don't fret, supertitles in English appear above the stage), the company delivers excellent performances of skilled subtly and humor that transcend language barriers. They are a tight, talented ensemble. Most notable are Gard Eidsvold and Eindride Eidsvold—brothers in real life, who play protagonist Hjalmar and antagonist Gregers. In a play about power and family secrets, it's certainly an interesting casting decision to hire noted acting brothers in these two particular roles. Both actors give strong, confident performances of tremendous intelligence and appeal. Ågot Sendstad gives Ibsen naturalism a new definition, creating a Gina who is at times awkward and one hundred percent normal, it is an honest, deeply woven performance with every tie neatly trimmed. Sendstad has a very European (brusque but sympathetic) presence and an outstanding command onstage. As fourteen-year-old Hedvig, Birgitte Larsen walks a dangerous line. She plays the role of a girl burgeoning on womanhood, discovering her new womanly body, all the while being inappropriately childlike with lengthy, intense secrets whispered into her father's ear and cuddling up to him on his lap. It's a captivating and vaguely seedy performance, and Larsen masterfully pulls it off.
The simple, clean lines of the Stubø and Ole Skjelbred adaptation are echoed throughout this sleek production. Kari Gravklev's set—an austere, six-foot beechwood veneer that stretches the length of the stage—is minimalist to say the least. The panel sweeps the stage like a Ludwig Mies van der Rohe building, gracefully but forcibly pushing its way onto the landscape. Naturally symbolism can be read into it: it is a wall after all—low enough to see over with a small amount of effort, but high enough to block the character's view of the important dramatic action that takes place behind it. Still set in Norway, but now in the early '60s, the production has a 20th century modern Scandinavian aesthetic (think Finn Juhl or, if you must, IKEA). Gravklev's unfussy costumes incorporate a lot of turtle necks and wool trousers—bland, yes, yet surprisingly insightful in their artless way. With her Scandinavian blond hair pulled back in a tight, bouncy ponytail and her unflattering brown plaid jumper, Larsen's Hedvig looks like a homely American Apparel ad. While Sendstad's wears ill-fitting sitcom mother shirtdresses, they are often in unexpected colors and the only color on stage—perhaps to reveal Gina's questionable past. Blindness (more symbolism) is a major theme of the play, and Ellen Ruge's lighting is decidedly murky, clearly an artistic choice, but I for one didn't appreciate it, and found myself wanting to see the actors a bit better. Overall, the production elements are nifty and rather iconoclastic; sweeping the cobwebs clear off this old warhorse.
At 122 years, The Wild Duck does not look its age. In fact, it's hard to believe it wasn't recently written for today's audience. Stylish, bruising, and sophisticated, don't miss this rich import from Norway's hottest playwright today.