Saturday, 19 February 2011

Third time lucky

There's a point somewhere near the middle of Simon Stone's re-working of the Ibsen classic, The Wild Duck, when Gina (Anita Hegh) is alone on stage. The lights are blazing and the music is almost unbearably loud. Seconds earlier her husband of 16 years, Hjalmar Ekdal (Ewen Leslie) has stormed out. She is distraught, her pain almost unbearable to watch. Somewhere around there I know I whimpered and the woman sitting next to me turned to check I was ok. This is what really good theatre should do.

In the moments before, Gina and Hjalmar wrestle on stage; she pressing him into the wall, begging with her whole self, that he stay. Its intensley private; an awful, painful, uncomfortable moment of absolute physical distress. And I'm watching it all, through one-way glass, not even a metre from the now quite literal fourth wall.
There are more such moments to follow. I know my breathing matched his, as Leslie's Hjalmar shakes with rage and grief. Its so low-key, in fact so barely palpable I'm not sure if it was even visible from further away; but its horrifying to witness. This is what a really good actor can make you feel.

Its no secret that I'd pay to watch Ewen Leslie read the phonebook. And now none that I'd travel 2000 kms in less than 24 hours just to see him on stage for 90 minutes. But Stone's Wild Duck delivers much more than just putting Mr Leslie within touching distance of this particular fangirl.

This play is the answer to Ibsen's earlier work on marriage and lies - A Doll's House. Equally shocking in its time, Doll's House tells us why we have to be truthful, really truthful, in relationships and truthful also to ourselves. Much later Ibsen writes a play that argues the opposite.

This production is physically overwhelming. The intensity of the voyeurism, starring into the lives of this family as it all-too-quickly unwinds. The glass walls Stone has built around the stage don't so much create a barrier as break one down. The walls reflect the audience back at itself; we're as much a part of the play as the actors.

Sounds harrowing? It is. But its also hilariously funny. Stone has done for Ibsen in re-writing him completely; what no translator into English has previously achieved. Ibsen's theatre was realistic - naturalistic dialogue; real people; real people's lives. It deals with serious issues about love, relationships and how we negotiate our way through a series of social expectations which seem at odds with the reality of being human. But he's also really fucking funny. And so is this script.

Did middle-class Norwegians 130 years ago swear quite as prolifically and energetically as the characters Stone puts on stage? Possibly not...But then they also didn't have mobile phones, watch beached whales on their iMacs or "go down the pub" with their mates. And all these elements work in this play. Its Ibsen but not as you've ever seen him before. Funnier, sharper, more moving.

I wasn't crying by the end. But I was deeply disturbed. The mics the actors wear transmit every sound; every intake of breath; every gasp; the sound of Leslie sniffing and wiping his noise. It creates a soundscape vivid and visceral and in contrast to the empty set and pared down costuming. It means that the final offstage dialogue between Gina and Hjalmar comes to us as an overheard conversation. Its all the more affecting as a result.

I want to talk about how creepily likeable John Gaden is as the aging and lecherous Werle; the genuine affection transmitted between the two old friends when Werle and Ekdal(Anthony Phelan) meet by accident and share a joke. I want to talk about how Eloise Mignon blazes on the stage, stealing scene after scene as Hedvig; the girl at the centre of all the lies. Or Toby Schmitz using his whole large frame to bear over the other characters; his size and prescence an apt metaphor for the impact Gregers idealistic truth-telling will have.

But its Leslie that sets the set on fire for me. I have gradually been running out of adjectives; metaphors; cliches; with which to describe his performances. Last night I suddenly found the lights going up from total blackout and the man himself almost literally standing on my feet. If I gasped out loud, I apologise. You can read directors talking about his energy; the bottled chaos he channels on the stage - but that close, its almost a little too real. That glass wall around the stage suddenly makes a lot of sense.


  1. Let's hear it for sitting up the front! I think the immediacy and sheer physicality of well performed live theatre contribute to its impact.
    And don't let anyone try to talk you out of being a fan girl. Great actors need great audiences, who who become so emotionally and intellectually caught up in the play that it amounts to participation.
    Now I want to see MR EL when he comes to Melbourne!

  2. Given I'm trying to work out if the MTC will let me buy a 12 play subscription that allows me to just see Hamlet...there will be ample opportunity for you to accompany me and provide the smelling salts!!