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Theatre Review: The Wild Duck exposes family secrets by fair means and fowl

Shining a light in the shadows: Nicholas Farrell (front) and Edward Hogg PICTURES: MANUEL HARLAN


The Wild Duck

Almeida, London ★★★★☆

A ROBERT ICKE production can often feel like an over-exposed photograph, with every element rendered in blistering clarity, so much so that the shock of it can hurt.

Ibsen’s 1885 drama, about the catastrophic consequences of a family secret being brutally exposed to the light, is all about the comfort of the dark, the lies we learn to live with and the fictions we place faith in. Which is better, the play asks: to live with a few secrets neatly hidden, or with every transgression truthfully on show?

There’s a metaphor for theatre itself in this and, sure enough, Icke’s production starts like a rehearsal, with the usual hidden mechanics of a stage play clearly visible, before ending as a fully realised production with a heart-stopping theatrical sleight of hand.

James Ekdal is living a humble but happy life with his wife and adored daughter Hedwig, 12, albeit one financially enabled by the wealthy father of his friend Gregory.

Outstanding: Clara Read impresses as Hedwig

Gregory, though, an uncompromising idealist who in Kevin Harvey’s sly and silky performance brings to mind the intractability of 21st-century ideology warriors, is determined to expose his father’s brutal treatment of his late mother.

He is also convinced the Ekdals will be liberated if they confront the foundation lie on which their family contentment is built.

Icke draws some unnecessary parallels with Ibsen’s personal life, while the way actors use a mic to expose the disjunction between what their character is saying and what they mean is an equally needless irritant. But that matters less the more his production grows.

Uniformly excellent performances — including an outstanding Clara Read as Hedwig — confirm Icke as a director brilliantly attuned to the double-edged nature of theatre, in which fiction can help us see the truth more clearly. He leads us into a unique realm of honest magic, in which a handbag and a live duck can stand for the same thing.