Critique: The Wild Duck – Part One
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If there’s one thing in this world that’s bound to get me more excited than a thirteen year old girl at a Justin Bieber concert, it’s a program redesign, so please excuse me while I scream uncontrollably and pledge my undying love to someone who doesn’t even know my name.
That done with and out of my system, we can get down to the business of analysing said redesign.
The first aspect that will come to your attention is that it’s pink. And that is a good thing. I mean, the number of times that I’ve been sitting on the train on my way home from the theatre and desperately wanting to be able to browse through a program that could be easily confused for a maternity pamphlet, because, you know, nothing signals “sexy” to a fellow female passenger than a guy studying up in case of an unplanned pregnancy. “Oh yeah, babe, I’m just that virile – my sperm can puncture three condoms in a single orgasm. So what was your number?”
Pink? Really? Did someone stick their hand up in the design meeting and say,” You know, guys, I just get the feeling that theatre isn’t gay enough, so how about we change the colour…”?
The program is bigger, though – about a third larger – so it’s not all bad news, even if it’s a bit like informing a relative that you couldn’t save their daughter from jumping off a bridge, but you managed to grab their necklace as they fell. I assume the other programs will not be pink. I better be right.
Bigger does not necessarily mean better, however. Let us look at the Director’s Note:
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See all of that white space at the top and bottom of the page? If one were to compare the amount of text on the page with programs for the previous year (and what do you know, one did do exactly that), you would find that the height of the text is exactly the same. Yes, the dimensions of the programs might be bigger, but are we actually getting more? It’s like when manufacturers pump air into bags of crisps – it may look fuller, but there’s still the same amount of chips in the bag.
Next is a note from Ralph Myers, though he can’t seem to decide if he’s an artistic director or set designer. One would assume that the note was from the set designer’s point of view, but as the title is just “The Wild Duck – Ralph Myers”, it becomes a tad conflicting. Schizophrenic, even.
Okay, so it isn’t actually anything like that, but I’m running out of things to say about the program. First play of Belvoir’s new season and already I’m having trouble. This bodes well.
The final article of interest in the program is “The Classics in Australia” by Eamon Flack, the dramaturg for the production:
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Please note the picture of Mr. Schmitz on the right hand side of the page (as opposed to the picture of him on the left hand side, I suppose). Caption: “Mmhmm…mmhmm…sorry, what did you say?”
As for the article itself – interesting enough, though it’s not specifically to do with this production of The Wild Duck, being an edited version of a preface to something else.
And then we have the biographies, spread over many pages. Like these two:
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So, what do we have here – the biography for Stefan Gregory, another for Anita Hegh, and finally one for Ewen Leslie. All in alphabetic order, no less. Wonderful. Fantastic. Spiffing.
Where’s the biography for Henrik Ibsen?
Oh dear, I hear you say. We’ve forgotten the writer. Never mind that he only redefined modern theatre. No, no, you just gloss over him in the biography, maybe light a bonfire on his grave while you’re at it, spray some graffiti on his headstone…
But maybe I’m being too harsh. I mean, it’s not like Ibsen is the sole reason for this production, is he? Oh wait. He is. Funny, that.
As for the Longest Column Award, this time it goes to…Toby Schmitz! Here, you’ve won some caffeine pills so you can concentrate! Huzzah!
Moving on. There’s a crisis ahead, and its name is advertisement:
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What’s the problem? They’re all the same advertisements as last year! How am I supposed to keep coming up with stupid stuff to say about such advertisements if Belvoir insists on putting the same ones in, year after year? You can only make fun of something for so long before you run out of ideas. Oh… Oh, I see what they’ve done. How very tricky.
Nevertheless, I will soldier on. See the “Wine iQ” advertisement? In the fourth picture, top left. “Wine iQ: Proudly moistening the throats of drinkers at the Hal Bar.”
I’m not sure if I want a company moistening my throat. It sounds so very mouldy. So very icky. Can you imagine the conversation at a dinner party? “So, John, what do you do?” “I’m an oesophageal lubricator.”
Finally, we have the back cover:
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“How could you think I wasn’t going to find out?” A quote from the play, obviously. Also, going back to the start, quite an interesting phrase to have on the back of a pregnancy booklet.
And so we come full circle. Time for the score. 1 for the Director’s Note. 1 for whatever the hell Ralph Myers’ thing was. 1 for the article by Eamon Flack that was only tangentially related to the actual play. 1 for the pictures of stoned actors. And 0 for the biographies, because, if you’ve been reading any of my reviews, you’ll know that I give 0 to programs that don’t include the writers in the biographies. It’s not like I didn’t warn you.
So, overall, the score?
Watch the trailer. Don’t make me tell you twice.
This is going to be a long review. I know that because I’m planning to write a long one from the outset. One doesn’t just stumble into epic poetry, for instance – you don’t just compose one stanza, then another, and before you know it have 500 pages of verse – no, you approach it differently, you prepare yourself mentally, you tighten your belt, you sit down at your desk, you untighten your belt because it was a stupid idea considering the amount of time you’ll be sitting down for and the propensity you have for trapping painful gases in your digestive tract – and then you do nothing. Maybe you’ll listen to some music, maybe you’ll fidget with your pens (even if you’re using a computer), but most of the time you’ll be doing about as much work as a blind man in a shooting gallery.
I know this because it’s what happens when I try to write a play – and mainly the reason, I suspect, that I’ve only written one full-length work. I sit there, I listen to my music, I constantly drop my pen, and I think, and think, and try to keep writing, but never do. My subconscious excretes all manner of options for the scene I’m working on, and I sift through them, looking for the best one, and in the end choose none. But any writer would know about this – perfection is a paralytic, after all. I managed to get past this hurdle once, but I can’t remember how. ‘Tis very annoying. Perhaps it has something to do with being a critic, making it harder to turn the self-doubt off. Who knows.
This problem, in general, is quite depressing. What’s more depressing, however, is that I should be writing a play right now for the Griffin Award, the deadline for submission of which is the 11th March. Having written only 485 words, I’m obviously in a great position to be completing the play on time. But instead of writing this masterpiece of the dramatic form, instead of penning this work of genius so I can further my career as a playwright, perhaps get shortlisted for the award (unlikely), perhaps even win the thing (hell would start a Mr. Whippy franchise before that happens), instead of putting all that into motion, I’m writing a review. I’m avoiding writing a play by writing about theatre. How’s that for irony.
But it’s worse than that. You see, beforehand, I was only not writing a play. Then along came the idea to write this review (as well as the notion that it would be a lengthy one), and I was paralysed again. Your four thousand, five thousand word reviews are easy – you just sit down, start typing, and blather on until you reach the end and hope that you’ve said something vaguely intelligent along the way – something that SETI might have a chance of picking up, for instance. But your longer reviews – now they’re a different pile of words entirely. One feels that a structure, a framework, is needed. Which, obviously, requires some thought. Pick the wrong structure and the house will fall down at the first sign of trouble. So not only was I not writing a play because I was thinking about how I should write it, for the past few days I’ve also been not writing a review for the same reason. This realisation, that I was putting off writing a play by doing something equally as productive – putting off writing a review – took awhile to come about.
My first subconscious thought was that maybe I should write a new play. But realising that I was fast approaching a situation where I’d be sitting at my desk struggling to write a play so I could avoid having to struggle to write a review so I could avoid having to struggle to write the original play, I decided not to. A few levels of abstraction higher and my mind would resemble a Babushka doll.
So I said “darn it”, in slightly more offensive terms, and resolved to write the review. But not a normal review (not that anything I do review-wise could be considered very normal). There would be no structure, there would be no plan – no, this time I would write it inside-out. I have a vague idea of what “inside-out” means, but to say that I know what I’m doing would be an overstatement. Exciting, isn’t it?
Well I don’t care if you don’t think it’s exciting – I’m enjoying myself. And you want a critic who is enjoying themselves, I think. Not one who enjoys themselves directly onto the paper – what was it Oscar Wilde said about all bad poetry being sincere? – but one who is cold, calculating, and mercilessly trying to manipulate your emotions so it appears that he’s enjoying himself.
I am that bastard. Pleasure to meet you.
Kenneth Tynan, critic extraordinaire, had a sign above his desk with the phrase, “be light, stinging, insolent, melancholy” written on it. In the same vein, I’ve made my own – “WIT NOT SHIT”.
And now I think we’re ready to begin.
I feel like now would be a good time to share an anecdote or two with you. Not because I particularly want to bond with you or anything – not unless you’re willing to pay me money for writing these reviews or are interested in commissioning/producing a play of mine – but to engender some feelings of camaraderie towards me. It’s a one way emotional transfer – I want you to be able to relate to me while I am able to keep a safe distance away from you. Nothing personal, of course, but as I don’t know anything about you, I have to assume your qualities based on averages. And, considering that a train carriage is as good a place as any to take the median of a population’s qualities, I’ve determined that there’s a fair chance you smell. Perhaps of alcohol. Perhaps of cigarettes. Either way, I’d like you to keep yourself and your questionable lifestyle choices at least a metre away. Unless, of course, you’re an artistic director, normal director, actor, designer, stage manager, literary manager, usher, playwriting competition judge, critic, producer, art council grant-giver, or generous person with a lot of money. You lot all smell wonderful. Like freshly baked cookies made by a perfume saleswoman who lives next to a florist. Mmm. I could just sniff you all to death, I could.
Not in a weird or sexual way, mind you. I’m a very sexually conservative person, and I have a great deal of respect for people’s personal space. All I’m saying is that, for instance, if an artistic director like Cate Blanchett and I were at the same opening night, and I was walking past her and she tripped over someone’s foot and smashed into my face, the moment before her skull crushed and broke my nose wouldn’t be an unpleasant one – that the smell that entered my nostrils would not be offensive to me. That’s all I’m saying.
But I’ve gotten sidetracked – completely on purpose, of course – so that you might think, “what’s this guy doing – he hasn’t even mentioned the play yet, why, he’s crazy, but in a good way, because he’s such a loveable fool, even when he derails the review, and even when he teases me”. Well, that’s very kind of you to think, and I’m almost convinced that I don’t even need to provide an anecdote, but as the one that I had in mind also has a foreshadowing purpose (so that the seemingly trifle of a tale will be much more important later on (though by then you’ll have all but forgotten it, and as such will come as a pleasurable surprise when I refer back to it)), I’ll relate it to you now anyway.
It was a hot night, the night I saw The Wild Duck. Muggy – in a legal way. It was, upon considered and extensive reflection, probably a bad idea to go on a shopping splurge at my favourite bookshop before the play, such that as I was tramping towards the theatre I had not only my water bottle in my satchel, but my father’s water bottle, an umbrella, a book to read on the train (The Pickwick Papers – a lengthy volume), and, as if all that wasn’t bad enough, the three things I’d purchased from the aforementioned paperback boutique – two volumes of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, both about as bulky and heavy as a pumpkin, as well as a copy of Vanity Fair (which I should perhaps mention is the book, not the magazine, as some of you may have been inclined to think otherwise after noting my culinary acquisitions).
I am a man – no, let me rephrase that… I am a precariously post-adolescent person who is prone to profligate perspiration. And slightly addicted to accidental alliteration, it seems. My satchel, on the other hand, would give a body builder a limp. It was not only a perfect storm but quite possibly a perfect sauna as well. Hot, sticky, and overburdened, by the time I reached Belvoir more electrolytes were coming out of my pores and hitting the ground than a Gatorade salesman with Parkinson’s.
(That was me being “edgy”.)
The foyer, of course, was packed. And, surprisingly, white. (The walls, not the crowd.) It wasn’t white last time I was there, you see, for The Diary of a Madman – it was more of a soothing womb-coloured red then. Someone, it seemed, had been busy with the Dulux. I was momentarily confused, assuming I had stumbled by accident into an art gallery, but then, realising that was impossible – as if you’d ever convince that many people to come to an art gallery – I continued on.
There was a line for the box office. I discovered this after being informed by the kind woman behind me that I had entered it from the middle. Dumping his train-book on me – a large, hardcover, autobiography of Alan Jones – father went to investigate the facilities while I re-entered the queue. And waited.
As I stood there, one or two girls gave me a look that – and keep in mind the utter ineptitude of my social skills – meant either “he’s tall”, “I want to get to know him”, or, considering the state I was in, “I wonder if I could make a profit harvesting his bodily fluids”. Not that I was interested in pursuing them romantically, of course, for a theatre is no place to start a relationship – too much drama.
The queue dissolved in front of me and I was thrust against the box office. “I’m here to pick up tickets,” I said to the woman behind the counter – using a technique that the English, out of all the civilizations in the world, I think, have the most proficiency in – that of stating the obvious. There are two groups of people that you don’t have to say anything to – strangers and friends. For the rest, small-talk is expected. And there is no better way to mediate the inevitable awkward silences that will occur than to state the obvious. “Lovely weather we’re having”, “I’m rather enjoying these aperitifs”, and so on. Small-talk is nothing more than the exchange of observable truths – statements that both parties could have arrived at without any interaction with the other – non-volatile facts, as it were. (The more perceptive of you, who have already seen the play and know its themes, will see that I’m setting something up in that last sentence. What wonderful powers of observation you have – I see a career in optometry in your future.)
“And what is your name?” The box-office attendant knew why I was there, as did I. I could have skipped the opening lines and stated my name from the start, but that would have seemed abrupt – rude, even. Efficiency is something frowned upon in social discourse – often one must obfuscate ones intentions. And it was this lack of efficiency in my ticket transaction that was to be my downfall – if I had just stated my name, if the woman had just plucked my tickets from the desk, then I would have escaped without incident, but no, no – I was detained far too long. You see, somewhere between her asking my name and my giving her an answer, a large drop of sweat trickled down some strands of my hair and landed on the counter.
And there it was, my sweat, in a nice little puddle on their pristine black counter. The woman began to search for my ticket, and I took the opportunity to wipe the perspiration away with my finger, resulting in an outcome that, far from ridding myself of it, instead spread it in a glowing arc across the surface. My finger was clearly not up to the task. But as the atmosphere was so hot, and as I was therefore not wearing any type of long-sleeved clothing, I had nothing to absorb the moisture. But I did have the Alan Jones autobiography.
The woman continued to look for the tickets – I had won them in a competition, so they weren’t in the usual place. I dragged the book across the desk, then lifted it off, only to discover that my sweaty rainbow had turned into a perspiring landscape. The differences between Alan Jones and a chamois became readily apparent. I repositioned the book and accepted my defeat, collecting the tickets and buying myself a program before reintegrating with the foyer mass.
And that’s the anecdote. Wasn’t that fun? You see, what I have done here is not only provide you with an anecdote (I won’t go so far as to say that it was an ‘amusing’ one, especially considering that the ending was rather a letdown), but I’ve also added some details which will be necessary for you to know later on. The fact that the anecdote could be considered part of the overall narrative of the review – a recount of how I got to the theatre – is something to be considered in its favour, such that it seems less like poorly-hidden exposition that must be got through and more like part of the story itself. And what’s even more nifty is that not only is the anecdote foreshadowing a later development, but the explanation of how the anecdote has been smoothly integrated into the overall story is, in itself, foreshadowing a point I want to mention further on as well. Neat, isn’t it? It’s almost like I know what I’m doing.
I don’t, though. I really have no idea. Sometimes I think at least half of the writer’s job to make his readers believe that he knows what he’s doing. Indeed, instilling belief in a reader is probably the easiest way for a writer to remove his own indelible faults – probably the only way, actually. Faith negates flaws. (That wasn’t necessarily a comment on religion, by the way. It was mainly a sentence that I felt had some sort of truth in it, as well as being rather eloquent – or at least I feel that it is.) Indeed, if you ever wanted an explanation as to why there is often such a divide between critics and the general audience – especially when discussing commercial/escapist art – it is because a critic is much less inclined to have faith. Critics are the atheists of the art world. Or the agnostics. I don’t know which fits the analogy better. Nevertheless, the atheist has, you would agree, a much harsher view of Christianity’s defects than a Christian does.
But I’m stuck in the middle of the foyer, and instead of making my way upstairs to the theatre I’m theorising about criticism. Let’s move on then, shall we? Up the stairs I go.
I was acutely aware, as I was walking up these stairs, that I had never seen an Ibsen play before – at least not a proper one. I was also aware that after watching The Wild Duck, I still wouldn’t have seen a proper Ibsen play. I say this not so you will realise that I’m ignorant – though that is part of my shtick, as it were – but more to make it seem that I’m on your level, that I’m not one of those elite critics, but instead a common man who has seen fit to find himself a soapbox and deliver his opinion to his theatrical comrades. Honesty is a part of the revelation as well, but it’s mainly to do with writer-reader bonding.
And if this weren’t an inside-out review, I’d leave it at that – I’d leave you to your bonding with me. But not this time. You see, it’s like someone admitting to a lesser crime to add weight to their testimony that they didn’t perpetrate the larger felony – I haven’t seen an Ibsen, I’m just as stupid as you, so my opinion will be more attuned to yours. But no, there’s no way in the world that I think I’m anywhere near your level – assuming once again that you’re the average reader, you probably like David Williamson plays, in which case, you disgust me. You make my skin crawl more than an army commando.
I’m only being honest. Only being truthful. (And there I go bringing up ‘truth’ again. It’s almost like it might be important.)
So I haven’t seen any Ibsen, haven’t read any Ibsen (even though I have three of his plays on my bookshelf), indeed, about the only thing I know about Ibsen is that he was Norwegian. Informative this review will be.
My seats were horrible. Right at the back, and virtually on the edge – row K for Krap, they were. It seems competition winners garner a lot less respect these days than they used to. But if there was one thing that my mother has taught me, it was that you must put your pants on before your shoes. And if there was another thing she has taught me, it’s that one must rise above such petty slights.
Noble is what I am, noble. Or was. Noble and sweaty. I removed the water bottle from my satchel, unsheathed it from its terry-towelling cover, took a swig, and used the terry-towelling to pat myself down. Why the terry-towelling? To keep the drink cool, to prevent leakage onto important documents in the general vicinity of the bottle, and, in extreme circumstances, for sweat absorption. And though I didn’t realise it then, now I’m aware of what a help it might have been at the box office. Still, you learn from your mistakes.
Indeed, we often say that a man learns from his mistakes, though tragedy is the special case – the events that unfold are the final examination. The characters are schooled by the test that they’ll never take again. The reason why we don’t view tragedy in art as destructive is because the characters make the mistakes so that we might pass the test ourselves. There’s something very spiritual in that, methinks – if one is thinking about Christianity, anyway. (A person sacrificing themselves for others, if you have no idea what I’m getting at. And if you still have no idea, tough luck – I’m not dumbing it down any more for you.) Now there’s an interesting tangent just begging to be explored – but we’re over three thousand words in, so I feel the play should be mentioned sometime soon, by more than name only.
Of course, as this is an inside-out review, I should warn you that I’m making all this up on the spot. Try not to be too influenced by any pithy aphorism I might throw out during the course of things – I’m certainly not.
I want to move on to giving you a synopsis of the play, but I’m too lazy to write a segue. You think of one.
Synopsis time. From the Belvoir website:
Are there some truths it’s better not to know?
Hjalmar Ekdal’s father was rich until scandal cast the family into poverty. Now he lives in a tiny flat with his father, his wife Gina and his daughter Hedvig. And a duck. And there’s about to be a new member of the household. Gregers Werle has just returned to town with some unfinished business that could shatter the little world Hjalmar has built around himself.
Over the past few years, Simon Stone has been excavating Ibsen’s array of brutal and tender tragedies and reconstructing them for the modern stage. The process has already brought about The Only Child in the Downstairs Theatre in 2009. Now it’s The Wild Duck’s turn.
Stone has transplanted Ibsen’s characters into the contemporary world in a new play tailor-made for an astonishing cast. This bittersweet portrait of family dysfunction, deception and denial will resound for a new age in Belvoir’s first show of the 2011 season.
There’s that word “truth” again. And the phrase “will resound for a new age in Belvoir first show of the 2011 season”, which is remarkably ironic, though I’m not ready to tell you why yet – I’m keeping that one up my sleeve, which considering the shirt I’m wearing, basically means I’m keeping it under my armpit, the same armpit that is currently perspiring, along with the rest of me. Sorry about that.
I’m cooling down, though. The air-conditioners in the theatre are doing their atmospheric voodoo, acclimatising everyone in the audience. We’re all waiting for the play to start. All I can see in front of me is the rear of a bunch of heads, three glass walls enclosing the stage, and a small electronic screen above each of these walls that are currently suggesting that people should throw their mobile phones into a river (or something to that effect). These screens are a new addition, and one realises that they will have a role to play in the proceedings.
You see, what I’m trying to do is give you some idea of what it was like to be sitting in the theatre on that particular night. This is quite the difficult task. What did it smell like? I can’t remember. What did it sound like? Nothing out of the ordinary – which means I can’t remember that either. One doesn’t remember banality. Indeed, if memory is a sieve, then banality is a packet of caster sugar – bland, uniform, and very, very fine, with nothing to stop it slipping through our minds. (There was some foreshadowing there.)
The play’s about to start – I’m getting there, but I can’t help these tangents, these wonderful unbeaten tracks. It’s the journey people, not the destination. Plus indulging these flights of fancy takes up words, and makes it easier for me to reach the word count that I have in mind for this review (and I do have one in mind, not that I’m about to tell you what it is). Indeed, memory is a whole branch of tangents in itself. What do I remember about the play? Nothing that I’d be particularly confident in testifying under oath about. But does it really matter? For me, personally, it doesn’t – I don’t mind if I completely misremember a play, firstly, because I have no choice in the matter, and secondly, because whatever influence the play will have on me comes purely from my recollection of what happened on the stage, rather than what actually happened, if that makes any sense. For the artist spurned, however, accuracy of recollection is a must for a critic. Pish-tosh, I say, pish-tosh! I have very little interest in accuracy – what was it that Algernon said in The Importance of Being Earnest – “I don’t play accurately – any one can play accurately – but I play with wonderful expression” – and that is two Oscar Wilde quotes in one review, which I think is quite enough, especially since I’m not sure that the second was relevant my argument. Still, one should know I don’t set out to be inaccurate on purpose, of course.
So with that disclaimer, I think it’s about time that the stage manager – or whoever does these things – dimmed the lights. And…
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’d probably know by now that starring alongside the six cast members of The Wild Duck is an actual duck. Tame, I assume. Irony.
I had heard tell of this plucky mammal. Making noises at inappropriate junctures in the plot. Defecating in places where it shouldn’t be defecating. Bursting into show tunes at the drop of a top hat. “How dangerous,” I thought. “Why, it could ruin the entire play. What if it died on stage? What’s the lifespan of a duck? How much experience did it have in acting? Would it get stage fright? Would it try to fly away? Would it see its own reflection in the glass and try to have sex with itself? What if it, god forbid…(wait for it)…quacked under the pressure?”
Oh, shut up. I’ll make puns if I want to. No need to get in such a flap about it. (See what I did there?) As a matter of fact, if you don’t like it then you can just flock off.
Where were we? Dimming the lights…
You know, it feels like all I’ve been doing for the last four thousands words is overburdening this train of a review with, I suspect, much too much exposition. Sorry about that. I’ll spank myself later. Nonetheless – what is the difference between nonetheless and nevertheless, I wonder? Nevertheless, it’s time for the train to start chugging along.
The lights dimmed. It is entirely possible that some music was played – as it did between all the scene changes. My mind at once leaped to comparisons with Vivaldi, though I think it was more a sort of free-form association between the word ‘violin’ and ‘Vivaldi’, rather than any type of systematic comparison of melodic technique. My experience of classical music is rather large; my knowledge of it, on the other hand, is rather poor. The music was some sort of string quartet. I think. It was also possible that the electronic screens were also displaying something, though logic tells me that they weren’t – not yet, anyway.
And so I sat there, peering at my watch to see if I had set the stopwatch correctly – I time all the plays I see, though I’ve only ever used that information once. Then I peered at the stage – it had been completely black beforehand, even with the house lights on one could just make out that there was a glass enclosure in front of them. And now, in complete darkness, there was nothing visible. Obviously.
And then there was a quack, and with that quack Simon Stone completely stripped the play of any symbolism. Well, almost.
I lied before. I do know something about The Wild Duck, the Ibsen original – though I didn’t know it while I was watching the play. I’ve come to understand that in Ibsen’s version, the duck is never seen or heard. It stays up in the attic the entire play. Or at least out of view of the audience. The characters apparently refer to it, and each of them reflect their own problems, their own viewpoint, through it. Not so in Stone’s case – the duck is on stage for at least a third of the play’s duration.
After the quack, the lights came up slightly, and the audience was presented with the duck, alone, waddling around on the stage. Out went the symbolism.
You see, symbolism thrives on abstraction. The duck in Ibsen’s original is, as one could guess, very symbolic – indeed, though it never comes onto the stage, the duck is doing quite a lot of work behind the scenes. Meaning one thing for one person, another thing for another, and so on. Bring it onto the stage and suddenly it’s no longer abstract, but as literal as you can get.
Case in point – Waiting for Godot wouldn’t have been half as interesting if we were told any more details about the mysterious Godot. What if Estragon was to tell us that Godot was a middle-aged man, six foot one, thin, has a penchant for catching butterflies, a French accent, went to a monastery for schooling, etc, etc. Any thought that you may have had during the play – the most common, I assume, involving a comparison between Godot and God – would have been completely eliminated with the addition of these details. The abstract dragged down into literal reality, stripped of its symbolism.
And this is what happened to me. I saw the duck. I saw it once, I saw it twice, I saw it many times. I saw a duck, and my brain registered that I had seen a duck. A duck. Feathers and all. When I watched Waiting for Godot I didn’t see Godot, and my brain registered that this unseen Godot was quite mysterious, and suddenly my consciousness kicked in and started imagining who this Godot was, and, without any concrete details, what kind of comment the playwright might have been intending to make – the symbolism was much more apparent. And can you imagine what a travesty it would have been if Godot had actually arrived? Utter disillusionment, I suspect.
This, then, was a problem with Stone’s The Wild Duck.
But it wasn’t a big problem. Yes, symbolism had been lost, but considering that I hadn’t seen the original, I didn’t realise that I was losing anything. I was still impressed by what followed.
The argument against what I have just said is that the duck was still in the play, and that the characters did refer to it often – surely this means that there is still some symbolism present? Just because the director has let it out of the attic to roam free across the stage doesn’t mean that he’s invalidated the feelings and reflections that the presence of the duck causes in the characters.
And you’d be right. But it’s only there if you’re looking for it. Whereas before, I suspect, the symbolism was much more obvious. It wasn’t until I started reading other people’s reviews of the play that I even considered that there may have been some symbolic undercurrent in the play. Yes, if I had seen it as part of a school trip, and was required by my teacher to write an essay on the various symbols in the play, I would have been able to extract them successfully. But if I hadn’t been in such a scenario, the symbolism would have gone unnoticed. It seems to me that it is surely a flaw to have to be prompted to more fully interact with the text of a play.
Then again, I’m not sure I agree with the whole idea of English classes in schools, and requiring students to explain the themes of a play in bland essays. In my entire reviewing career (and please note that I use the term ‘career’ very loosely), I don’t think I’ve ever written a review like one of the essays I was required to pen in high school. One wonders how much use such things are.
So is it a problem? Obviously it’s a concern for me – though my experience of the play was untainted by any of these questions. I think the reason that I find it concerning is that, as a critic, I’m always interested in what work will survive, will last throughout the ages. Stone’s version won’t. I’m not sure that that matters.
This will get confusing. And will be completely irrelevant to whether one enjoys the play or not, but I find it interesting.
Great plays are ambiguous – not ambiguous in the sense of “I’m not sure what is going on”, but ambiguous in the sense of “open to interpretation”. Ambiguity enables interpretation. Ibsen’s play is ambiguous, and is great (it should be noted that ambiguity is not a sufficient condition for greatness, but it is a necessary one). Stone’s play is not ambiguous, so it is not great. An interpretation, on the other hand, can’t be ambiguous. At least not in the same way that a play is. Stone’s interpretation is great.
Recap – Stone’s play is not great, but his interpretation is. This distinction arises because Stone’s script (cowritten by Chris Ryan) is merely after Ibsen. It is not Ibsen’s play that you will watch if you make your way to Belvoir.
Now observe as I disappear up my own behind. Revel in the semantic pretension that will follow.
Knowing that Stone’s version was an interpretation, I found the experience great. If it had been the case that Stone had come up with the script without any reference to Ibsen at all, however, it would not have been as great. Very good, yes, but not great in the sense of “a piece of art that will last through the generations”. This would have shown itself in the score at the end of my review – the latter scenario would have decreased it. How’s that for a pretentious manipulation of subjectivity? Fun, yes?
The reason as to why this is the case is that Stone has, in effect, distilled Ibsen’s play – indeed, Stone’s version runs for about ninety minutes, providing a much more compact and concentrated version of the story, stripped of all excessive characters, props, sets, and dialogue.
Distillation removes ambiguity. I use the word ‘distilled’ very selectively here, because I think that is what Stone has been trying to do for quite some time – but more on that later. If one were to consider things by their order of magnitude, an interpretation of a play, in my view, is a much lesser transformation of the original form than a distillation. Does that make sense?
All interpretation, adaptation, and distillation, removes ambiguity. It is like cutting a flower off its stem to show it in a new light. Yes, it will look wonderful for a while, but it won’t stay alive for too long. This is why the playwright is considered so much more important in theatre than the screenwriter is in film. A playscript needs to be great and ambiguous to survive, while a screenplay needs a great director to have any chance.
Where was I. Right. The duck on the stage.
This appearance of the duck before any of the actors – before the play had even started in earnest, was very important, for two reasons. That is, there would have been two intentions of the director, I think, in including this seemingly superfluous prologue, as it were. First, it was to establish the duck as a symbol – this didn’t work, as I’ve just explored. But the attempt was there. The second, and far more practical reason, is to clear the audience’s mind of any anxieties or expectations that they may have had. Everyone – and I mean everyone – who was in that audience would have known that there was a real duck in the play. Everyone would have been wondering about this duck just as I had been – what would it do, would it behave, would it play up, etc. Any scene that was to be played in front of their eyes before the audience had been introduced to the duck would have been tainted by this pre-play baggage. A director does not want this. A director wants his audience to be focusing their full attention on the current scene, and not wondering when the duck will make an appearance.
The solution? Show everyone the duck at the start, get it over and done with, then continue with the play.
This is one of the problems I have with warning an audience that there will be gunshots in a play – the usher is inadvertently giving the audience a preconception that will affect their experience of the play, that will, more often than not, take them out of the moment. If you’ve been told that there is to be a gunshot in the play, you can’t help but wonder, every time you see a gun, whether now is the moment that it’s going to be fired. If there’s no legal reason for warning the audience of such things, I don’t know why theatre companies insist on doing it.
The only exception to this rule, of course, is warning people about nudity. That’s just good for business.
The lights go out again, the music starts up, and the screens show “Monday 9:40am”. (You should know that I just fabricated that timestamp – I have no idea what it was.) The story was about to begin.
This is nice, isn’t it? I’m finally talking about the play. The critic’s got around to doing his job. So with that in mind, let us pause for a moment. Let us…rewind.
To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much from The Wild Duck. I knew that it was to have a great cast – Toby Schmitz, Ewen Leslie, Anita Hegh, and three others – so I was somewhat comforted, but not completely. I’m not a fan of Simon Stone, you see. Not a fan at all. If you were to ask me what some of my favourite directors were, the answer would involve Benedict Andrews, Matthew Lutton, and at least a few more before I had reached Mr. Stone. He and I, we’ve had a tricky relationship so far.
It started with The Promise.
Watching The Promise was a bit like watching a microwave oven defrosting a frozen dinner – time-consuming, boring, and with a lot of spinning involved (the main part of the set rotated). And not only did you not get a nice reheated dinner at the end – unlike the microwave – you also had to endure not one, but two, intervals. “Is dinner ready yet?” you might ask, to which the reply would be, “No dear, I’m just letting the microwave rest for twenty minutes. For the second time.”
I’ve just reread my review of The Promise, which was a mistake for two reasons – first, I hate everything that I write, so reading a review from two years ago is, you can imagine, a rather painful experience; and second, many bad memories that I had suppressed have been brought gushingly forward to the surface. The lack of a seat – there was no D-14 in the theatre the day I went there (but two D-13s). The rescheduled performance, as one of the actors had been sick. The fact that I didn’t enjoy the play. Oh, the horrible memories!
If art is a mirror to nature, then criticism is like a reverse-prism to art – taking in all the different beams of light and combining them into one stream for the edification and entertainment of the reader. When the quality of the prism is not so good, the output suffers as well. I wasn’t a very good prism two years ago, and it shows. Then again, I doubt I’m a very good prism now, but I don’t have the perspective of time to help me judge things, so I remain blissfully unaware of whether I’m still as bad. Denial is a very important trait for a writer, methinks. Nevertheless, I can’t help the feeling that I’m getting by purely on personality, and that if I don’t learn some technique soon, things are going to stall very badly.
A good example of a technique would be not putting four thousand words of exposition at the start of a review. Structure is very important. But there aren’t just techniques for a writer – there’s techniques a director can use. And Simon Stone has been using many different techniques over the course of his career (and when I say “career”, I mean “the four plays that I have seen that he has directed”). Let me try and describe The Promise for you – and remember, I’m doing this from memory, basically, so caveat emptor.
The Promise is a play by Aleksei Arbuzov, written in 1965. The version I saw was a translation, and nothing more drastic than that. It was set in Russia. I don’t know when. A while back. The story was a love triangle between a woman and two men, set over a war. I don’t know which war. There were three acts. The stars were Ewen Leslie (actor in The Wild Duck), Chris Ryan (cowriter of The Wild Duck), and Alison Bell (nothing to do with The Wild Duck).
The set was the most interesting aspect of the play, to be honest. In the middle of the Belvoir stage (for the production was in the Belvoir Upstairs Theatre) was a large square platform. It had a brown wooden floor, and around its four sides was a dark red curtain – no more than half a metre high, not even touching the ground – that covered a few compartments into which the actors would reach on occasion to produce some item that was needed. The whole thing rotated. Indeed, it managed to rotate quite fast, sometime making me wonder whether the centrifugal force might not fling the actors off at an inopportune moment, like a queasy baby on a Merry-Go-Round.
Nothing was on this part of the set. Only the actors.
Around the rest of the stage – the walls – were bits of furniture, lamps, a radio, and so on – the furnishings of an apartment set in a time between the invention of radio and the invention of television. Not that the walls were dressed up to look like a house, but there were the required number of props and whatnot there so that the actors had something to interact with. One needs a place to store the vodka, after all.
The story went on and on and on and on, people bemoaned their situation, various tragic circumstances arose, and in the end I can’t remember who ended up with who, or even if someone ended up with someone else – I’m pretty sure that it wasn’t a very happy ending, however.
And this is where the technique comes in. There was one main technique that Mr. Stone used to attempt to add some dramatic heft to the various situations that were being played on stage. And can you guess what that was? Spinning. Spinning the square platform around. Any time there was a hint of conflict that had just started to burst, around the stage went, as if Mr. Stone was trying to use some sort of behavioural teaching to stop the characters from arguing. “Going to quarrel? I’m going to make you feel sick while you do it.”
Obviously this was not the effect that he intended. It seems clear to me that Mr. Stone was trying to up the dramatic ante, as it were, to get the audience to focus on the love triangle being played out in front of them, and nothing else. And it did add a bit of vim to the scenes, but there weren’t very many sparks of conflict to begin with, so nothing much happened. The spinning was the only use I could think of for the square platform, and the effect of it was dismal. But it is instructive, I think, to look at what Mr. Stone was trying to achieve.
Here was a very bare set – one imagines that most other productions of The Promise, especially keeping the three-act-two-interval structure, would have filled out the stage much more realistically, what with there being no set changes during each of the acts. Here the focus was all on the interrelationships between the three characters. Here was a play that was supposed to tug at the emotions. The woman chooses one man, which she probably wouldn’t have chosen had she known that the other man was available (something along those lines, anyway). This is the stuff that is meant to get your heart in knots. The spinning of the stage was supposed to exaggerate this process, but it didn’t. Why was this the case?
I don’t particularly care. It wasn’t the fault of the spinning platform alone, but the spinning platform wasn’t blameless. Look at Measure for Measure, for instance, directed by Benedict Andrews at Belvoir last year. Here there was another spinning set – a full hotel room on a rotating platform – that added to the drama. Look at Barnadine, the dissolute prisoner, and his rampage through the hotel room, trashing the beds, smearing excrement across the shower walls – he was, quite literally, spinning out of control. Look now at Angelo, the hard-line man ruling the city during the Duke’s absence, look as he disrobes and prepares to have sex with someone who he thinks is Isabella, the novice nun who he has propositioned in exchange for his sparing her brother’s life, but is instead being duped into having sex with his estranged wife, Juliet. Watch as he is sucked in, drawn into a trap, watch as the set spins like water spiralling down a drain. Watch as he circles his prey.
Compare all this to three people in The Promise having an argument while being spun around. You see the difference?
After seeing The Promise (which I gave 6/10), I was far from convinced that Mr. Stone was anything to write home about. Or even anything to write about.
Then came The Only Child. Based on Little Eyolf, an Ibsen play, of which I know nothing (a bit of a theme at the moment, it seems), Mr. Stone had adapted it, much like he has done with The Wild Duck – stripping the play of its extraneous characters, taking the number down to four, and taking away almost all of the set, leaving merely a bath with a showerhead above it.
There was a lot of nudity involved in The Only Child. It was a much more interesting play.
Eyolf, the disabled boy, tried to go for a swim and drowned. Or was bullied and went for a swim to drown. I can’t remember. His father, played by an actor I can’t remember, spends most of the play in the bath. And naked. His mother gets naked too at some point, I think. As does the father’s sister, and her male admirer.
No, that’s wrong – only one of the women was nude. I don’t know which one.
Anyway. The production was in the Downstairs Theatre at Belvoir, so the space was much more limited, which one assumes might have been the reason for the extremely simple set.
Things happened. The father had come home planning to spend more time with his son. The family learns that the son is missing. The sister and her admirer come around to comfort them. The family learns that the son is dead. Much moaning happens. The family deals with the funeral. The mother and father eventually find each other through their grief, and then the play ends. Something along those lines.
Not since the Garden of Eden scene in the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of The Mysteries: Genesis, had Sydney audiences seen so much pubic hair on stage.
There were three things that Mr. Stone was trying to do in this production, I think. Three techniques that he was trying to use. First – falling water. Obviously there’s a link between the water in the bathroom and the water that Eyolf drowned in – there’s a symbolic link between the two. Also, as anyone would know, the sound of water falling is rather calming. The Only Child was a play in which there was no point of high-action. Yes, there were arguments, yes there was a lot of emotion being flung about, but none of it was particularly active. (I’m not suggesting, by the way, that a play must be ‘active’.) The calming effect of the water was mildly, well, effective. It calmed the nerves, and cleansed the audience’s emotional palette somewhat.
The second technique was nudity. I’m sure there was some reason for it, such as showing how the different characters are ‘baring’ themselves to each other, showing how we often wear disguises in society, how we hide our true feelings… But as for the drama – it did nothing. Obviously, one of the actors was required to be naked because he was in the bath for most of the play, and to be wearing anything would seem unrealistic – that was at least one reason for the nudity within the context of Mr. Stone’s adaptation. But in the context of Mr. Stone’s interpretation of the Ibsen original, it puzzles me as to what the purpose was. Nevertheless, the nudity did nothing to harm the play.
The third technique was the dramatic pause. This is a technique that annoys me immensely. How many plays do you see where the actors stop talking to each other so they can exchange meaningful looks, or so they can do some mundane activity while passive-aggressively indicating to the audience that something is amiss? Harold Pinter used to bemoan that many actors and directors took his famous pauses far too seriously. Amen to that, brudda. (That was me trying to be gangsta.)
Uncle Vanya is probably the only play I’ve seen in recent memory where excessive pauses were worthwhile. But then Chekhov is a entirely different kettle of mackerel to everyone else. What was also of interest in Uncle Vanya was Chekhov’s use of the rain to help with dramatic dissipation in certain scenes – the characters have an argument, and when they’re finished, it starts to rain, flushing the memory of the spat away. Yes, the characters might still be fuming (though I doubt it), but the audience is calmed and ready to confront the next part of the play, the next conversation, often aimed at a very different and much subtler emotional level than a fully blown argument or similar moment of high-emotion. Chekhov knew his musical structure, knew how to transition without jarring. After Sonya’s monologue where she considers her one-way infatuation with the handsome doctor Astrov after having had a deep and meaningful, though ultimately fruitless, conversation with him, where she keeps all her emotions bottled up inside, the beautiful Yelena Adreyevna comes in:
YELENA ANDREYEVNA [opening the window]: The storm has passed. What wonderful air! [A pause.]
Mr. Stone, on the other hand, thought it was a good idea to have one character dress another for three or four minutes, from fully naked to fully clothed, the dressee weeping the entire time. This was supposed to be a highly emotional moment – indeed, it was meant to be a moment where the audience was given time, and plenty of it, to empathise with the main character. It was also meant to be a beautiful moment, as were many of the moments in The Only Child. A reflective moment. A meditative moment. A koi-pond moment.
It was all that for the first twenty seconds. By the one minute mark I was wondering how two actors who must have been so used to rapid costume changes off-stage could manage to keep such an excruciatingly slow place. Two minutes in I was ready to start a slow clap. It would’ve been like a strip club but in reverse. “Put it on, put it on, put it on!”
Not that I’ve been to a strip club.
What was the purpose of such an extended scene? Focus. Once again, focus. The director wants the audience to fully feel what the characters are feeling, and this time, instead of spinning them around – something that would have been a disaster given the amount of water in the bath and the proximity of the audience to the actors – he introduces large pauses into a play much shorter than the original text it was based on. It could have worked. It didn’t. I don’t think I’ve seen a pause that long in any other play. I definitely haven’t seen a pause that long in any other great play.
Still, The Only Child was a much better experience than The Promise, garnering, if I had bothered to review it, a 7.5 or 8/10 from me.
I didn’t think Mr. Stone was anything special, however. No, he had only been upgraded from boring to competent. Progress.
Then there was The Suicide. A comedy. That was his first mistake. I vaguely remember reading in an interview with Mr. Stone that he regretted directing The Suicide, or felt uncomfortable doing it, or something to that extent. It showed. Let us remember the career path so far. First, Mr. Stone pares down the set of The Promise, trying to exaggerate the emotion of the three characters. Then he pares the set down even further for The Only Child, and not only that, but adapts the script – distils it – and once again tries to bring out the emotion of the characters. Then he chooses to direct a comedy.
If there’s one thing that you should never do to a comedy – ever – it is suffocate it. You can suffocate a tragedy all you want, concentrate it, distil it, get rid of all the extraneous details, but a comedy… Put it this way. You don’t need to be able to breathe to cry. You need to take a breath to be able to laugh, however.
Mr. Stone realised this, of course.
The Suicide was, once again, competent. But it was so far removed from what Mr. Stone had been doing up until that point that I think it’s best to consider it an aberration. There was no distillation, no focus on emotion, just pure, flowering comedy, as it needed to be. Not great, though, but enjoyable enough. One couldn’t help the feeling while watching it, however, that there was no guiding hand behind the scenes, that what we were seeing was just a bunch of events strung together and moving towards no goal in particular – in a directorial sense, anyway – even if the plot was perfectly coherent.
I’m not going to bother describing the play to you, suffice to say that it involved more than six characters, many of them running amok, curtains being drawn hither and thither, audiences members being interacted with, cross-dressing, song and dance, wild parties – if I had to pick one word to describe it, I’d choose “excessive”. Please note that I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense.
What would I have given it? 7/10. Or 7.5/10.
So. Mr. Stone was still competent, but nothing more. And this was my attitude on the way to see The Wild Duck. I was looking forward to seeing Ewen Leslie, because he had apparently given a very good performance as Richard III, and I was quite enthused at the prospect of seeing Toby Schmitz, because he was an actor in Travesties, and as such I’m therefore a giddy fanboy towards him, as well as everyone else involved in that play, which seems only slightly weird where Mr. Schmitz is concerned, but gets a tad more troubling when one mentions the words “giggling fanboy” and “Jonathan Biggins” in the same sentence, and even more disturbing when I move past the actors and actresses and into the list of designers and other creatives, especially considering that I have very little idea what any of their names are, what they look like, and if they’re even still alive.
Then again, compared with the mind-sex that I wish to have with Tom Stoppard, all of the above fades into nothingness. We could do one of those Spock things that he does in Star Trek – the mind-melds or whatever they’re called. (I may be a nerd, but, surprisingly, I know only a small amount about Star Trek. I know so little, for example, that it took me until around three-quarters of the way through the latest Star Trek film to realise that it was retelling the origin story, rather than being a continuation of the old storyline.)
I’m getting sidetracked.
Where were we. Right. Mr. Stone was competent. I was sitting in the theatre. I’d just seen the duck, not a stone’s throw away.
Oh, shut the hell up. I know it was a bad joke.
But back to Stoppard. I mentioned before that I felt that I was relying on personality to get me through things while I learned technique. Compare Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead to Arcadia. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is possibly one of the most personality-driven plays out there, surely – it’s just Stoppard talking to himself half the time. Whereas Arcadia is much more structured, has much more emotion, is technically a lot stronger. Interesting, yes?
And no, I’m not comparing myself to Stoppard. Not favourably, anyway.
Back onto the main branch, Adam. No more tangents.
The duck had just been shown to the audience.
You know, I just realised what I’ve been doing. A man called William Archer once told me that the difference between Ibsen and Shakespeare is that in Shakespeare everything important happens in front of the audience – in the frame, as it were – whereas in Ibsen most of the important stuff has happened beforehand. Shakespeare does everything in the present, whereas Ibsen pulls the past into the now. And what has this review been so far but me putting every single preconception and past notion that I had about the play and myself down onto paper. Electronic paper, anyway. All foreshadowing and ready for the climactic second half.
I didn’t say I’d done it well, mind you. Not that you’d point that out, of course. You’re far too polite to do that. Besides, I hadn’t really planned on structuring my review this way – it was supposed to be inside-out, remember, and nothing more. Huh. I blame my subconscious.
I could go back and change it, but I’m nowhere near the level of caring enough to do that. My apologies.
Back on the branch, Adam, back on the branch. The duck. The lights had gone down once more. Music was playing, violins were trembling, cellos were shunting ahead, violas were mellowing, electronic screens were showing times…all was ready.
It was about this time that I think I stopped sweating. My pores dried up and the play flooded my consciousness. And wasn’t that a tortured metaphor.
The lights come up and we finally see everything. The bare set – nothing adorning the walls, nothing covering the floors, just nothing – though it was far from empty. The glass walls were there, just like they would be for the entire play. But apart from them, all that could be felt was a void. The play was to go for ninety minutes. There were only to be six actors, and a duck. The props, if any, would have to be minimal. Mr. Stone had taken the original Ibsen play and stripped it of everything except the essential, just like he’d tried to do with The Promise, just like he had done more successfully with The Only Child, and just like he’d avoided doing in The Suicide. Cutting everything away until only the emotion remained.
And good lord did it work this time.
The lights come up and I see Toby Schmitz and John Gaden. I listen to their awkward conversation as John Gaden’s character, Werle, tells his son Gregers, played by Mr. Schmitz, that he is to be married in a week’s time, to a woman much younger than he is. And he describes how he’s going blind – ‘macular degeneration’ is what the doctors have told him. I laugh along with everybody else at the funny moments. I wait, not impatiently, as the scene changes, the lights going down, the music echoing around the theatre again, the electronic screens moving the time forward a few hours. I get caught up in the story, I marvel at how well behaved the duck is, I begin to feel for the characters, I start to make connections moments before they do, find myself surprised at the revelations, all the time observing with a morbid curiosity what the characters will do next. A glass-enclosed habitat for me to peer through.
I begin to believe that the synopsis on Belvoir’s website was correct when it said that the play was a “bittersweet portrait of family dysfunction, deception and denial,” that will “resound for a new age in Belvoir’s first show of the 2011 season“. I can feel it seeping into my pores – this…this is something special. I can feel it, to use Belvoir’s words, resounding with me.
And that was the moment when Ewen Leslie’s microphone stopped working.
I never knew that glass was so sound-proof.
Given that this is an inside-out review, I thought I’d just let you know that that was a cliffhanger. Blame Dickens.