The Wild Duck

Almeida The Wild Duck
Photo: Lyndsey Marshal, Kevin Harvey and Edward Hogg by Nadav Kander

Almeida Theatre. On until 1 December 2018.

The stage is bare, the brickwork at the back of the stage showing, and props such as a record player, photographic developing equipment and a massive set of metal stairs, all pushed to the edges.  Electric strip lights drown the stage in glaring brightness. On walks an actor with a hand held microphone, and what appears to be a reminder to the audience to turn off their mobile phones, cleverly becomes a monologue about truth, lies and storytelling.  And we’re off. Into Ibsen’s twentieth play written, as we are told numerous times during the play, in 1884. But this isn’t a exactly a straight performance of play, as the unconventional opening suggests. Throughout it hand held microphones are passed baton-like between the actors, as like some kind of talking stick, once received they reveal a truth to the lies spoken by their characters: “he lied”, “it was more than three” “he didn’t come back that night”.

This might seem a bit too self-knowing or like a comic wink direct to camera breaking the fourth wall.  But here, in the hands of Robert Icke, it is a device that allows the characters almost to confess or come clean about what has been said. Nor is this some sort of academic textual analysis of the play, although it certainly does allow for some meta analysis of Ibsen, and his own illegitimate child born to a servant girl and who he paid maintenance to until she was thirteen.  Instead it makes the play richer, the pacing faster, the narrative more meaningful, which combined with the updating of the language and references, creates an even more powerful production.

After the opening speech to the audience by Gregory Wood (Kevin Harvey) you move into the opening act outside the Wood’s family home (microphone – “end scene”), then quickly into the apartment of his friend James Ekdal (Edward Hogg). Here you remain to become immersed in the Ekdal family, their struggles, their love, their happiness. And whilst we learn that this is built upon the shakiest of foundations (this is Ibsen after all!) you really felt, despite all the trials they had been through as a family, that there was genuine warmth and love here.

Wild Duck is not a play I knew before, so the story and emotional journey of the characters were all fresh to me.  It doesn’t always follow that a classic play is gripping, but here I was on the edge of my seat.  I thought the acting from the whole cast was simply outstanding.  I believed in every character. I felt the emotion and turmoil and pain of them all.  Nicholas Farrell who plays the grandfather was wonderful in his playful tender scenes with his granddaughter (Grace Doherty on the night I saw this).  Edward Hogg and Lyndsey Marshall as Gina Ekdaly felt entirely believable as husband and wife, from their most tender moments to their pain as the world comes crashing down around them.  But even minor characters like Andrea Hall as Anna or Rich Warden as the drunk doctor neighbour, felt like real fully rounded characters. In part this was due to the writing in this adaptation, but it was also due to great performances given by the whole cast. There was a palpable chemistry on stage.

Bunny Christie’s set design should also get a mention.  Despite the apparent sparseness at the start, the set builds incrementally through props and subtle lighting changes, reaching what can only be described as the set designers equivalent of a crescendo, which I feel should not be revealed at the risk of spoiling the impact on the audience.

In short this play and this production was for me pure theatre magic. I was entranced from the moment it started to the very end. Robert Icke is a true master. I left happy and elated, despite the bleakness and dark themes the play explores. This is what great theatre looks like.

October 19 (Stalls B6)

20/20

20/20 Vision

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Top Marks – End of Summer Term Report*

By way of an end of summer report I thought perhaps I’d comment on the productions I’ve seen so far this year that have reached the high water mark of 20. Going forward it isn’t my intention to retrospectively discuss plays and musicals I’ve seen that have now closed, unless they are likely to transfer.  Here though I want  to give some indication of what I’m prepared to give these marks to, and why.

So before I start praising, I will add just that there is no mathematical formula being applied to my scores. I am not for example dividing up a production into scores for acting, staging, creative interpretations or story.  It is instead more of a gut feeling (which I appreciate is subject to many and various pressures). As I leave a show, was I enraptured? On the edge of my seat? Wanting to leap into the aisles and dance? Was I challenged or stimulated (intellectually)? Or did I not feel it? Did I come away feeling like something was missing or off or out of kilter? Was I bored or distracted? Was I inwardly rolling my eyes and tutting?

Now given that writing reviews is not something I’m trained or particularly experienced in doing, other than verbal enthusiastic recommendations to friends, I beg some leniency. I will though try and be as balanced and even handed as I can.  I will state the night I saw the show and where I was siting (as I’m of the belief that sitting in the front of the stalls vs back of the upper circle can influence your experience of a show). Although forgive me for this post I wont add these details. And I’m more than happy to have alternative views shared.

One final caveat is simply this: I never read or studied English or plays beyond GCSE, so any understanding or interpretation is coming from my background of enjoying the theatre, and possibly having seen different productions of a play.

So in the order I saw them this year:

Hamilton – So it probably goes without saying that receives top marks. An all round impressive production from music to performances and staging, of which much has been written already.  I’ll only add simply that this is one show that lives up to the hype. And if you’re worrying you can’t get a ticket until 2019, then you can always try their ticket lottery: https://hamiltonmusical.com/lottery/ 

Network – A tour de force that cleverly brought the 1976 film to life.  Brian Cranston was incredible in his performance of news anchorman Howard Beale, with an equally talented supporting cast.  For me it was staging and live camera feeds projected up onto screens behind that was particularly clever (too often such efforts seem out of place) given the story being told. That, combined with this being a story about truth and how the news (and the public) is manipulated, made it a perfect play.

The Brothers Size – Almost at the other end of the production budget scale came at the Young Vic.  A beautiful moving story simply told, in a chalk circle drawn by one of the actors at the start of the play.  Written by Tarell Alvin McCraney (writer of the film Moonlight) this play demonstrated how talented he is.

Summer and Smoke – Another big hitter by Tennessee Williams at The Almeida.  Happily and deservedly it is getting a transfer to the Duke of York’s in November, and well worth going. Whilst a fan of Tennessee Williams, I did not know this play. For me this was an incredible and magical production.  The simple staging powerfully creating the atmospheric setting, with a wonderful performance from Patsy Ferran as a minister’s daughter.

The Inheritance Part 1 & 2 – Hard on the heels of the revival of Angels in America at the National last year, this was inevitably going to draw comparisons with its themes of gay men and the impact of AIDS on their lives.  Whilst I think it had some flaws in the story, that perhaps could benefit from looking at afresh, it was an overwhelmingly powerful and moving theatrical experience that once I started crying there was little to stop me until we reached the end.  As a gay man it resonated.

The Encounter – Complicité – Probably the most inventive storytelling seen so far.  This one man show (Simon McBurney) using sound / foley tricks to recreate a fascinating true story of a encounter of a remote Amazonian tribe by National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre in 1969

My Name is Lucy Barton – Laura Linney gave an outstanding performance in the play of Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout’s best-selling short novel. The design team – including lighting and sound, should also win praise, in this minimalist staging. Perfection.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Coming out of this production at the Donmar I was just bouncing up and down by how great I thought it was, from the adaptation to the performances to the staging. Sublime!

A 24-Decade History of Pop 1776-1806 – This wonderfully outrageous show by Taylor Mac defies categorisation with its use of a 22-piece orchestra, drag, audience participation (at the Barbican no less), historical storytelling and musical history and deconstruction.  I have never seen anything quite like it and cannot wait for the next instalment (1806-1836)!

XENOS – I’m sneaking in this dance piece by Akram Khan at Sadlers Wells (out of order of my timeline) because I do think this man is a choreographic genius, but also as it was also a tour de force of storytelling and staging, shining a light on Indian soldiers fighting for the British during WW1.  His last solo show will not be forgotten (and I cannot wait to see what his company does next).

So there we have it 10 of my 20/20 productions taking us up to 6 months into 2018.  I am genuinely excited and intrigued to see whether the remainder of the year can reach such zeniths of perfection.

 

* Photo credits: Matthew Murphy (Hamilton); Jan Versweyveld (Network); Tristram Kenton (Brothers Size); Marc Brenner (Summer and Smoke); Simon Annand (The Inheritance); Jenny Anderson/Getty Images (The Encounter); Manuel Harlan (Lucy Barton & Miss Jean Brodie); Sarah Walker (Taylor Mac)