Lyndsey Marshal in 'The Wild Duck'
Lyndsey Marshal in 'The Wild Duck' © Manuel Harlan

The truth comes out and worlds fall apart in The Wild Duck. Henrik Ibsen’s family drama shines a light on a sham marriage. James and Gina Ekdal’s happy family home is gradually exposed as a construct; a convenient cover-up for another man’s infidelities and an illegitimate child, Hedwig. Pulling the play into the present day, Robert Icke brilliantly retools its naturalism for our post-truth age.

It is a Plato’s Cave of a play. Kevin Harvey’s Gregory Woods (Gregers Werle in the original) returns from a self-imposed ascetic exile, rejecting his father’s industrial wealth, as a determined truther. By contrast, his old schoolmate James (Edward Hogg) lives a fantasy life. A childish daydreamer in lopsided specs, he plays mime tennis with his daughter and puts his photography practice aside for some pipe-dream invention. It’s his wife (Lyndsey Marshal) who holds their life together, fully aware that it’s founded on a fiction — all arranged and paid for by her ex-lover, Charles Woods. “The truth will set them free,” insists Gregory, like some enlightened, deranged doorstep evangelist. It doesn’t.

Icke illuminates Ibsen’s intentions with form. Starting on an altogether bare stage, exposed beneath unblinking floodlights and fluorescents, he slowly builds a fully-fleshed fictional setting. Actors who begin by directly addressing their audience, microphone in hand to narrate events, gradually slip into naturalistic pretence as Bunny Christie’s design builds the Ekdal house around them and Elliot Griggs’s lighting dims down to soft shadows.

It’s super smart: a show that slides from Brechtian alienation to Stanislavskian suspension of disbelief. Mimed objects materialise as the play unfolds. A handbag stand-in borrowed from an audience member is replaced by a real duck. Theatre, Icke makes clear, exists on the edge of truth. The show skips between layers of reality — just like life. The microphone is key. Used to explain the truths of Ibsen’s play, it too becomes subsumed into the story as characters wrestle it off one another, refusing to “end scene” on demand. Narration, subtext and commentary all blur into one.

Throughout, Icke peppers his own adaptation with species of lie, always probing the value of absolute truth. Are the family portraits on the Ekdals’ walls lies, for instance? What about the stories they tell to teach their daughter about death? Is it lying to indulge the dementia illusions of James’s drunkard dad (Nicholas Farrell), as he heads upstairs in hunting kit, taking an attic of old Christmas trees for a fully fledged forest?

This Wild Duck argues that we’re all doing likewise; propping up a world order we know not to work. It’s so well conceived that it can feel over-controlled, a theatrical thesis that pre-empts its conclusions, but its commitment to truth, and to theatre, never caves.

★★★★☆

To December 1, almeida.co.uk

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