Let's be honest: we're all here to see the duck. Director Simon Stone knows well enough not to leave us waiting long. There's a quack. The lights go up on a vast glass tank, the kind of enclosure one expects to see plants or fish or wildlife in, and, sure enough, there's a live duck downstage centre, regarding us from the other side of the glass with avian indifference. The audience coos with pleasure. The duck rises on its legs and flaps its wings. The lights go down again.
So begins Stone's adaptation - and interrogation - of Henrik Ibsen's The Wild Duck.
Gregers Werle (Toby Schmitz) breezes back into town for the wedding of his successful merchant father Werle (John Gaden). He catches up with his old friend Hjalmar Ekdal (Ewen Leslie), who's living a modest but happy existence with his wife Gina (Anita Hegh), his teenage daughter (Eloise Mignon), and his mentally brittle father Ekdal (Anthony Phelan). Ekdal keeps a duck - and several other animals - in the attic-turned-forest upstairs.
When Gregers unearths a long-buried secret about Hjalmar's past and inflicts it on Hjalmar himself, he unwittingly sets in motion a devastating series of events with disastrous repercussions for the Ekdal family.
Stone doesn't muck about - he's gone straight for the jugular in his surgery of Ibsen's text and given it a newfound fierceness and muscularity. Short scenes feel cut even shorter by sudden and total blackouts - often when the characters are mid-conversation. Composer/sound designer Stefan Gregory's vigorous violin tremolos, which fill these moments of darkness, have the wild momentum of the events unfolding on stage.
Stone has stripped the story of its supporting cast (a bookkeeper, a housekeeper, a doctor, a theology student, a servant, a "flabby gentleman", a "thin-haired gentleman", six dinner party guests and several waiters), leaving us with six characters whose lives, we discover, are all bound together.
They're trapped in another way: Stone and set designer Ralph Myers have seemingly caged the performers in a featureless glass box, a placeless place, with no discernible way in or out. The glass barrier is a literal fourth wall - a way of keeping the duck from wandering off, of course, but also much more than that. Are we witnesses to a science experiment - a sequence of volatile chemical reactions? Are we perhaps visitors at a zoo exhibit detachedly observing the primitivism of human behaviour? Or, as the reflectiveness of the glass frequently reminds us, are we just audience members in Belvoir's Upstairs Theatre dumbly taking in another show? By criminy, depending on how you perceive these reflections and shadows and how philosophical you're feeling, maybe it's us on the other side of the glass after all.
(The arrangement put this reviewer, for his part, in mind of the nocturnal rodent called the shrew, whose metabolism is such that it eats up to three times its own weight every day. It is almost always hungry. Imprisoned with other animals of its own species, it resorts to cannibalism. When isolated, rather than go hungry, it will eventually seize its own tail and devour itself alive. Cheery stuff, I know.)
Gregers, with his unvarnished truth, robs the Ekdal family of its illusions. Stone has made a number of bold directorial decisions that might have done the same to the production. He distances us from the action, taking away the sensation that we are breathing the same air as the performers. He discombobulates us further by punctuating the action with blackouts. And then there's that duck. A live animal on stage, doing whatever it bloody well wants to do, has an uncanny knack for making everything else seem artificial.
But, in the end - and you knew I'd eventually get to this because this is a five-star review - it bloody well works. Is invigorating even. It's because Stone has provided his actors with the room to act their guts out. Every character is honest, believable and human (apart from the one non-human character), and it's an excellent ensemble: Eloise Mignon plays Hedvig with heart full to bursting; Toby Schmitz turns Gregers into a cool emotional arsonist still dealing with the baggage of his own life; John Gaden as Werle is the very picture of sexagenarian loneliness; and Anthony Phelan's Ekdal is a bruised man (literally so, what with the duck trying to gnaw his middle finger off at a crucial moment). Ewen Leslie and Anita Hegh as Mr. and Mrs. Ekdal put in two particularly powerful performances. When they throw themselves headlong into the tempest, the physical barrier between actor and audience only accentuates their anguish - there really is no way out for them. In Stone's production, no one and every one of these characters is responsible for what happens to Hedvig.
The final scene of The Wild Duck transports us somewhere else entirely. It offers the characters we've been spying on all evening some release, some glimmer of something resembling hope and, ultimately, some privacy. The effect is quite profound.
The Wild Duck is a brisk, riveting production. In less than 90 minutes it will engage, intrigue and provoke you on a multiplicity of levels. And hey! There's a live duck on stage!
Henrik Ibsen's The Wild Duck is a warning on the perils of truth-telling. It revolves around the Ekdal family and the arrival of family friend Gregers Werle, an idealistic soul who believes in always telling the truth - even at the cost of the happiness of the Ekdal family. Ultimately, Gregers' rampant honesty leads to a number of shattered lives.
Adaptor/director Simon Stone has put this single tragic event at the centre of his production. "I'm looking at the same characters and actions from a different point of view," he says. "I wanted to propose exactly the opposite [of Ibsen]: suicide is an enigmatic, confusing, awful, tragic thing that happens that we will never be able to understand - and therefore we can't actually blame anyone. You see the same event five times from everyone's point of view, so there isn't the objective narrative of the original - just a confusing quagmire of potential reasons."
The show will star a couple of our favourite Sydney thespians: two of the Three Blind Mice, Toby Schmitz and Ewen Leslie. (The third blind mouse is conspicuously absent.) Belvoir's artistic director Ralph Myers calls Stone "the hottest young director in the country in inverted commas" - in 2010 he directed The Promise, also in the Upstairs Theatre and starring Ewen Leslie, and in 2009 he adapted Ibsen's 1894 drama Little Eyolf into The Only Child, a bold production - full of emotional and physical nakedness - in which most of the action happened in a bathtub.