There have been a spate of productions recently that take a classic play, lift up the hood, and have a rummage around with the nuts and bolts.
There was othellomacbeth at the Lyric, which spliced together the titular plays, casting the female victims of the former as the witches in the latter. Then there was Measure For Measure at the Donmar, which repeated the same play twice, gender swapping the lead roles for the second version. And now there is the Almeida’s production of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, which provides a meta commentary as the play unfurls, its actors breaking character to address the audience, explaining the fictions taking place.
And, for the first two hours, it is absolutely awful. Harsh strip-lights shine down for what feels like an eternity, wilfully shattering any sense of immersion. The actors tread an empty stage, borrow clothing from the audience, and pass around a microphone that signals them talking as “themselves”. It’s as brutal a theatrical experience as I’ve sat through, and I seriously considered leaving at the interval.
Thankfully the second half delivers something of a tour de force, almost – but not quite – mitigating what had come before.
The Wild Duck is a tricky play about the fungibility of truth. A young idealist believes it is his duty to tell the world about his father’s affairs, but other, better truths have since been build on this illicit foundation; and yet he seems intent on watching the world burn.
Some of director Robert Icke’s liberties with the text pay off. Characters begin to “hear” the asides to audience, further shaking our understanding of what is “true”. The virtually unadorned stage, meanwhile, reveals a breathtaking secret, courtesy of the ever-brilliant Bunny Christie’s set-design.
But I can’t help wondering how good it might have been had it just stuck to the script.