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The Wild Duck
Henrik Ibsen - A new version by Frank
Gregors Werle (Frank
McCusker), the moody son of wealthy businessman (Vincent McCabe) returns home after a long
absence only to find that his old friend Hjalmar (Denis Conway) has been virtually adopted
by the old man. Hjalmar has been equipped with the means to establish a small photographic
studio. His own doddery father, the old mans disgraced former business partner (Des
Nealon), has been given charitable clerical work with inflated pay, and, most
significantly, Hjalmar has married Gina (Andrea Irvine), former housemaid to the elder
Werle who ran afoul of the old mans now deceased wife many years before.
Hjalmar is happy enough with his life, and seems to have a rounded
relationship with his wife and his daughter Hedvig (Judith Roddy). The family live in a
converted attic with a room for rent next door and two cheerfully drunken neighbors living
beneath them, Dr. Relling (Chris McHallem) and Molvic (David Gorry). They also keep a
small menagerie, the latest addition to which is a wounded wild duck which Hedvig watches
over with particular care. The bird, another gift from the household of the elder Werle
becomes more than just a convenient and multi-leveled metaphor for Gregors, driven by his
own social and psychological demons to decry his privileged upbringing and the sins of his
father. Aware of a past secret which is not very hard to guess, he resolves to clear the
air and force truth to purify the lives of those around him, even if it means
making sacrifices, or encouraging others to make them.
In his efforts to purge his own troubled conscience, Gregors,
proceeding out of what he perceives to be the best of motives, systematically destroys a
family happily surviving on lies and illusions. The plays most forceful thematic
paradox is summed up at its climax. The haggard Dr. Relling, who has been saving lives by
proffering necessary illusions, tells the obsessionally righteous, truth
telling Gregors "life would be fine if we could just be left in peace".
The meaning of the image of the wild duck is multifold, but its unseen entrapment beneath
a steel grille guarding the menagerie is a theatrical image which resonates deeply with
the idea that some things are best left unsaid and some situations are left well enough
A Wild Duck was something of a shock to Norwegian audiences in
1884. Its savage attack upon the nominally righteous behavior of the character who would
previously have been one of Ibsens heroes seemed to turn the social critiques of A Doll's House, Ghosts,
and An Enemy of the People on their heads. It is a strong text, a
powerfully dramatic social and psychological examination of the boundaries of emotional
fulfillment. Carefully constructed with due attention for the social and economic details
which ground the personal psychology, it challenges and confronts its audience without
losing touch with solid, naturalistic storytelling. It was the bridging play between his
enormously successful mid-career work and his more reflective and willfully ambiguous
later plays including Hedda Gabler
and John Gabriel Borkman.
Irish playwright Frank McGuinness (Gates of Gold) began adapting Ibsens
plays in 1987 with his acclaimed version of Rosmersholm, and has since presented new versions of Peer Gynt, Hedda Gabler and A Dolls House. He has also
adapted Chekov, Lorca, Brecht, and even Ramón María del Valle-Incláns Barbaric Comedies. It is
a sign of confidence in Irish theatre that playwrights such as McGuinness, Friel, and
Kilroy have found comfortable congruencies in the work of major international dramatists.
This version of A Wild Duck is gripping and involving for any audience, faithful
to its source and yet with a distinctive voice of its own. McGuinness has cut a clear path
through Ibsens original dialogue, subtly shifting idioms and elements of
characterization to a local register without actually changing the setting. It speaks
clearly to a contemporary Irish audience not least of all in its skepticism with the
sermonizing mentality of its almost clerical antagonist.
Hungarian director László Marton makes brilliant use of the stage at
the Peacock, with excellent blocking and precise movement which succeeds in sustaining the
illusion of naturalism in the presence of a symbolically and thematically charged space.
Every actor seems comfortable with the complexities of the text and every nuance of
psychosocial tension has been drawn out though controlled yet fluid direction. Paul
Keogans lighting is evocative, making use of identifiable light sources on stage
drawn from the setting in a photographers studio. The lighting also reflects the
theme of encroaching and unrealized blindness. As the play progresses, there is less and
less light on the stage, and yet the space is illuminated sufficiently at all times for
the audience to understand the full meaning of each characters place and position.
Dublin, July 9, 2003
- Harvey O'Brien