How fascinating to catch this new Donmar Warehouse production of The Wild Duck (1884) so soon after another thrilling Ibsen revival, of his Pillars of the Community (1877), at the National. Ibsen himself considered The Wild Duck his masterpiece, a play that marked a major departure for him as a dramatist. And yet, there are distinct parallels between it and his earlier work.
Hakon Werle (played here by a gruff William Gaunt), the moneyed merchant in The Wild Duck, could well be Pillars’ greedy Karsten Bernick (a fiery Damian Lewis at the NT) a few decades on: tired, lonely and largely defeated as he nears the end of his life. Also as in Pillars, the arrival of a prodigal relative (in this case, his son Gregers) heralds major disruptions. But, beyond an Act 1 confrontation between father and son, Werle senior has little to fear. Gregers chooses instead to visit his lofty ideals upon the perceived victims of his father’s crimes. Ironically, though, unlike in Pillars, here the truth – or at least the dogged pursuit of it – has the power to destroy rather than to liberate.
In their “drab and depressing” attic apartment (revealed from behind a sliding wall in Vicki Mortimer’s design), the Ekdals are doing their best to cope with the trials of day-to-day existence. But when Gregers moves in to the spare room, he sets about dismantling their “life lies”, little realising the horrific potential consequences. He can’t understand that such delusions – of inventions, hunting, family, independence – can be not only a means of survival but often a sole source of happiness.
Ben Daniels – staying on after the Donmar’s last production, Sam Shepard’s frenetic black comedy The God of Hell - shifts gear as the contained but relentlessly principled Gregers who makes swift work of manipulating and derailing his childhood friend, Paul Hilton’s wonderfully weak and self-pitying Hjalmar Ekdal. Around these two flawed men are a circle of well-observed individuals who share in their torment: Michelle Fairley’s capable wife, Sinead Matthews’ exuberantly self-sacrificing daughter, Peter Eyre’s ex-military father, Nicholas Le Prevost’s hard-drinking but wise doctor neighbour.
Aside from these fine performances, Grandage’s production – of a fine new version by Festen author David Eldridge – boasts many lovely touches that illuminate the play. One of the most startling is the use of Adam Cork’s transitional music. Sounding as if it could be the cinematic score for a new space odyssey, it seems at first anachronistic, and yet proves apt: it opens up great vistas in the heart and mind before each scene when Grandage refocuses us with pinpoint accuracy on the details of this family drama, so beautifully played out on the intimate Donmar stage.