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Review: The Wild Duck (Almeida Theatre)

Robert Icke's production of Ibsen's play opens in London

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Lyndsey Marshal in The Wild Duck
© Manuel Harlan

He's done it again. He really, really has. This isn't the flashy, video-streaming, coin-flipping, Ivo-impersonating Rob Icke of Oresteia, Hamlet and Mary Stuart, more the restrained Rob Icke of Uncle Vanya, but it's no less radical, no less revelatory for that. The Almeida's prodigal son has turned his fierce gaze onto Ibsen and produced a version of The Wild Duck that's both harrowing and heart-breaking in equal measure. Undoubtedly one of the shows of the year.

Icke's gift is to take a classic text and make it utterly, thrillingly accessible to a present-day audience. He sees straight to the heart of a play and exposes its deep, human truths. With Hamlet, it was the inescapability of grief. With Mary Stuart, it was the ironic duality of fate. Here with The Wild Duck, it's the conflict between fact and fiction.

Ibsen's narrative remains present and correct, but Icke has retold it in contemporary dialogue. Greg, the errant, idealistic son of a wealthy businessman, returns home to wreak havoc upon his former friends and family with his truth-telling honesty. He determinedly reveals his father's past lecheries, his own buried guilt, and the frail fiction within which his best mate happily lives. Long-buried secrets rebound around Bunny Christie's bare stage like great, galloping horses.

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The elemental question Ibsen originated, refined with such emotional articulacy here by Icke, is whether it is better to live your life as a lie or face up to reality, no matter how harsh. Whether we should embrace the stories we tell ourselves to survive, or shun them in search of deeper truth, deeper meaning.

But that's not all Icke's done: he's also reframed the play – the performers routinely break out of character, seize a microphone, and soliloquise their feelings, their backstories, and the history of the play itself to the audience. Kevin Harvey's Greg gets the bulk of it, monologuing freely in his warm Liverpudlian tones about ethics, morals and the deceit he sees all around him.

It's not entirely perfect – the first half hour is kind of exposition-heavy, and the meta-theatrical conceit with the microphone feels clunky at times – but as Icke's thoroughly thought-through adaptation progresses, as it reaches such exquisite peaks of drama in the phenomenal second half, none of that matters. The final forty minutes is just superb theatre: excruciatingly tense, heart-stoppingly gorgeous (with a wonderful coup de theatre from Christie), and emotionally traumatic, all at the same time.

The cast are uniformly excellent. Harvey as the irritatingly earnest, sensually-voiced Greg. Edward Hogg as his anxious, incessantly grimacing photographer friend James, whose fragile life gets torn to pieces. Lyndsey Marshal as James' loyal, loving wife Gina. And especially young Clara Read, who exudes a chilling power as James and Gina's teenage daughter Hedwig.

But this is Icke's show, through and through. His extraordinary string of critical and commercial hits have already proved that there is no-one else like him working in British theatre today. The Wild Duck simply asserts that further. It's brutal, beautiful, and borderline brilliant.

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