A big, reflective glass box sat plump, yet slightly askew in the middle of the stage as the crowd of middle aged theatre folk milled in to the Heath Ledger Theatre. It was Perth’s opening night of Australian writer/director Simon Stone’s adaptation and reimagining of Henrik Ibsen’s play The Wild Duck, as performed by the Belvoir St Theatre. The scattered murmurs dispersed as the lights dimmed, aided by the helpful – if intrusive – “shhh!!” from other patrons. The lights flashed on and we were greeted with the vastness of this glass box, disturbed only by a lonely wild duck. As she waddled around and spread her wings – a little ostentatiously if you ask me – she was greeted with gasps, moans of joy, and – to my dismay – even applause. Suddenly we were returned to black. Two TVs mounted on the stage helpfully told us the day and time (as done in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), and the show began in earnest.
The action continued in a quaint fashion. The happy Edkal family is torn apart as an old friend, Gregers Werle, returns for his father’s wedding and exposes a dark secret underpinning their family. All the perennial, clichéd subjects of modern theatre dutifully emerge; disagreements between father and son, old friendships, marriage, divorce, the modern family, the resolution of class difference and dealing with dementia. However, that is not to say they were not creatively portrayed. With all the action carried out in this vacuous glass room, we are positioned as the voyeur, sampling the vignettes of modern life, gleaning increasingly more of the interconnected characters and the narrative that weaves them together. Likewise, the characters seemed trapped in the cage, resigned to their fate.
Each scene ended with a vivaciously ominous string set that turned the most unassuming line into the climax of a Hitchcock thriller. Equally, subtle and nuanced acting developed more complex characters from these archetypes.
After plodding along in a comfortable rhythm, our expectations were eventually ruffled. The classical music turns to death metal, the warm yellow lights become a harsh and artificial white, and slick classical scene changes give way to a continuous stream of separate scenes taking place in the lifeless, illuminated box, their separation only indicated by the time displayed. The pace quickens and the plot thickens.
As onlookers to this modern tragedy, we watch helplessly as the action escalates, turning from one significant event to another. Yet the narrative melds seamlessly together and juxtaposes with the realism of traditional Ibsen to startling effect.
Aside from a few minor errors with lines that disrupted the flow ever so slightly, the play runs as smooth as maple syrup. Stone presents us with realistically flawed characters at their most vulnerable and at the point of their greatest upheaval. Overall, Stone’s piece is poignant, exposing both the beauty of tragic theatre and the power of the representational. The Wild Duck is one of those plays that make you reflect on the life you live, and feel giddy at the power of the theatre.
Words by Ralph Thompson