Critique: The Wild Duck – Part Two
[IMAGE REMOVED AT REQUEST OF BELVOIR]
I’ve decided that I’m cursed.
Welcome back, by the way. Congratulations to those of you who managed not to slip into a coma after reading the first part. You’re all made of strong stuff, able to withstand anything that’s thrown at you. Like thick garbage bags. Which would make me your trash, I suppose. Hmm.
But yes, I’ve decided that I’m cursed. I’ve seen fourteen shows in the Upstairs Theatre of Belvoir. The Man from Mukinupin, Ruben Guthrie, The Promise, Gethsemane, Happy Days, The Book of Everything, That Face, Love Me Tender, The Power of Yes, Measure for Measure, Gwen in Purgatory, Namatjira, Diary of a Madman, and, finally, The Wild Duck. Let me tell you what happened in Happy Days.
There was Winnie, beaming away, when some woman in the audience behind and to the right of me started to make some weird noises. Guttural sounds, and not in a melodic throat-singing kind of way. They began to get worse, and the rest of the audience was becoming perturbed, when the person next to the woman – a friend, I assume – shouted, “Is there a doctor in the house?”
Winnie stopped talking. The house lights came up. For those of you don’t know, the set for this particular production of Happy Days involved a circular curtain that surrounded the entire stage, which was, at the start, drawn back to reveal the mound of rubble that Winnie was stuck in. This curtain was mechanically, and therefore rather slowly, pulled back around so that the actress playing Winnie could remove herself from her conundrum without ruining the entire effect of the play. An ambulance was called and two paramedics arrived within five to ten minutes. The troubled woman walked out with them to the ambulance.
My first thought when I saw this was “she can’t be too sick if she can walk to the ambulance”. I wonder what that says about me. Nothing good, I suspect.
I’ve always wondered what it would be like to have a Doctorate of Philosophy and be sitting in an audience when someone calls for help. “I’m a doctor!” you can shout proudly, “I can help you come to terms with dying! I believe that it was Plato who said…”
Winnie popped back into position, the curtain took another minute to draw back, and the play continued. The overall effect of the first act was greatly diminished.
Then there was Namatjira, with the actor prancing about the stage with a microphone strapped to his face, the wire going through his beard. A third of the way in, there’s this rustling sound. It gets worse. And worse. After a while I became convinced that there was an army of bugs – lice, perhaps – trying to eat their way through the wires. The stage manager, or whoever it is that’s in the box, steps out and apologises: “As you can tell, we’re having some technical issues with the microphone, so if you’ll just bear with us for a moment, we can fix it.”
The actor runs off stage, the audience waits for five minutes or so, and the actor re-emerges, microphone fixed, and continues on.
Then there was The Wild Duck. Things are getting heated. Secrets have been revealed. Ewen Leslie and Anita Hegh are on stage, playing the husband and wife estranged, and his microphone isn’t working. This wouldn’t be so bad, you might think – they’re just two characters talking, surely the audience can hear them. But when the actors are surrounded by glass, it makes projecting your voice that much harder, added to which Ewen Leslie was not compensating for the lack of amplification. Nobody could hear a thing. Out the stage manager comes again, “I’m sorry, we’re having some technical issues, if you’ll just bear with us…”
You see why I think I’m cursed? Or perhaps it is Belvoir that is cursed too. Perhaps I am like the Kryptonite to Belvoir’s Superman. Three out of fourteen plays have been stopped midway through. I have never had this problem at any other theatre. Ever. Just Belvoir Upstairs.
Statistically, there is a 21% chance that a play I see at Belvoir Upstairs will be required to pause. One in five, people – one in five.
Methinks Belvoir should be paying me not to see their plays. You’ll find that my fees are very reasonable. Only one hundred dollars per performance. I look forward to doing business with you.
But back to The Wild Duck. Goodness gracious me, there’s a lot to talk about, though I can break it into three main strands – theoretical, technical, and thematic. The three Ts. How very English of me. Let’s start with the theoretical.
The memory is a fickle thing. There is no more relative and subjective record of our life than our memory. Think of the holiday you spent, that week away in the country, where you did nothing all day, just relaxing, just ambling around that dilapidated cottage that you rented for such a great price – think about how slowly time seemed to move then, a minute felt like an hour, an hour felt like a day, but it didn’t matter. Now remember it, and marvel at how quickly the time passed now that you think back on it – you only spent seven days in the country! No more than a week! It all passed so fast!
Now think of that holiday you spent with your high school friends on the Gold Coast, surfing all day, partying all night, packing each of your seven days of newly found freedom with as many activities – especially memorable ones – as you could. There just didn’t seem enough time to do everything you wanted to, right? All you wanted was just a couple more days to surf, a few more nights to party – there were so many things to do, and time was flying by so fast! Now remember it, and be amazed at how long the days were, how that one precious week felt endless, how you can remember so much of what happened, how the days went on forever and the nights even longer…
Remember me saying that banality was like the caster sugar to the sieve of memory? Of course you do, because you read every single word I wrote and didn’t skim anything, right? I’m so glad.
The collision between memory and plot is one of the most important foundations of storytelling in the theatre. There are two main methods – at least that I can think of – to create a sense of the epic in an audience watching a play, especially a tragedy. The first is through the manipulation of emotion – garnering empathy for the characters on stage, as well as the production of awe in an audience member. The second is through the manipulation of memory – plotting done in such a way as to give the illusion of a specific length of time. Manipulation of emotion adds feeling to a play. Manipulation of memory adds depth.
Please do remember that I’m making all this up on the spot.
With The Wild Duck, Mr. Stone has basically mastered these two modes of manipulation. He might not realise this himself, of course. And it could just be a fluke, for all I know. Nevertheless the effect of the play speaks for itself.
The manipulation of memory is what I’m interested in at the moment. Watch as I try to make a coherent and logical argument when I don’t even know what point I’m trying to make. This should be fun.
We forget the banal. Hence, we remember the important. (There’s a bit of a leap of logic there, already, but as the second statement would be considered true by just about any sane person, I’m willing to let it pass.) Out of the two holidays that I described above, which one do you think would more likely be referred to as ‘epic’ – the week’s stay in the country spent relaxing and doing nothing, or the seven days on the Gold Coast, surfing all day, partying all night? Obviously the answer is the latter – the Gold Coast holiday would be described as ‘epic’. Possibly with the addition of a ‘man’ afterwards, depending on how much of a surfer dude you are. Like, totally rad, man.
Any tragedian would realise this. Pretty much the most ineffective thing you can do to make an audience feel like a lot of time has passed is to tell them, ‘a lot of time has passed’.
The events of The Wild Duck happened over a week, shown to us, the audience, in the space of ninety minutes. It felt much, much longer. Much more epic. Much more epic than it would have felt if we were to have bought tickets for a Sunday performance that was to last until the next Saturday, which – disregarding the impossibility of staging such a play – would have let the banal flood in to fill the gaps and would have completely overwhelmed any sense of epic-ness that could have been gotten from the play.
What is most interesting about all of this is that The Wild Duck went for only half as long as A Streetcar Named Desire, and yet felt just as epic. Why is this? Both plays had about the same amount of important stuff happening within them, but A Streetcar Named Desire took longer to get through it – Tennessee Williams’ version is not the most concentrated form that the play could be. A masterpiece, yes, but able to be distilled, just as Mr. Stone has done with The Wild Duck, if one wanted to. Of course, if one did distil A Streetcar Named Desire, the resulting interpretation would no longer be ambiguous, so we must be thankful that the original text is there. Indeed, one wonders whether this type of condensed tragedy that Mr. Stone has achieved with The Wild Duck is possible to be a standalone tragedy, as opposed to merely a concentrated interpretation. That would be interesting to see. I said before that as a play itself, Mr. Stone’s adaptation is not great. One wonders if anyone else has done work like that that is great.
If you get the feeling that I’m saying a lot of things without actually writing anything particularly concrete, then you’d be right. I’m thinking what you’re thinking, B2.
Comedies always seem shorter than tragedies. At least, good comedies always seem shorter than good tragedies. A comedy usually has very little in the way of important events, or if there are important events, they all lead up to a happy denouement, which is itself not that important, and as such all the previous links in the plot-chain get demoted, if that makes any sense. Rarely does one come out of a theatre after seeing a comedy and feel a sense of awe, after all. The difference between a farce and a tragedy readily illustrates the point – in a tragedy, lots of moments are of great import, because a life-changing decision is to be made by a character, say, but in a farce, half the time all the important events are mere coincidence.
Many of the plays I see fail because the events that occur in them are not important enough – especially if they’re meant to be a tragedy, though there seems to be a push towards murky tragicomedy in Australia at the moment, with the only time an audience gets to see a fully-fledged comedy or tragedy is when they’re watching a classic. If there’s any budding playwrights reading this, take heed – don’t go writing crappy tragicomedies. Beckett did it. Chekhov did it. Chances are you’re nothing like those two. Stick to one of the other genres.
Anyway, the actors, the director, and the playwright, can all do as much as possible to instil feelings of high empathy in the audience members, but of all this will be of no use if there is no sense of the epic.
It occurs to me that Brecht had the term ‘epic theatre’. I have no idea what this is. I’ve never seen any Brecht. Nothing I say in this review refers to that in any way, shape, form, footnote, or encyclopaedic entry.
Mr. Stone’s version of The Wild Duck is flawed. I discussed this before – the loss of symbolism with regard to the duck. But his distillation has discarded other aspects of the play as well. What else has been lost? Let us look once again at A Streetcar Named Desire. Many of you who are reading this will be familiar with the Sydney Theatre Company production of it, starring Cate Blanchett, two years ago. One and a half years. Something like that. Do you remember the first scene, where Blanche enters the empty apartment?
EUNICE: I’ll drop by the bowling alley an’ hustle her up.
[She goes out of the door.]
[BLANCHE sits in a chair very stiffly with her shoulders slightly hunched and her legs pressed close together and her hands tightly clutching her purse as if she were quite cold. After a while the blind look goes out of her eyes and she begins to look slowly around. A cat screeches. She catches her breath with a startled gesture. Suddenly she notices something in a half-opened closet. She springs up and crosses to it, and removes a whisky bottle. She pours a half tumbler of whisky and tosses it down. She carefully replaces the bottle and washes out the tumbler at the sink. Then she resumes her seat in front of the table.]
BLANCHE [faintly to herself]: I’ve got to keep a hold of myself!
Remember? That would have taken at least a minute or two to get through in the production I saw. I doubt that many people would call that an important event. Characterising, yes, but not that important. For those of you who have seen Mr. Stone’s production of The Wild Duck, can you imagine him transferring that event in A Streetcar Named Desire to his own version of it? I’m fairly certain that the answer is ‘no’.
This perhaps makes itself most known with the character of Gregers, played by Toby Schmitz. Here is a character that, by trying to be a good friend, insists on telling the truth. We never really feel this, however. Indeed, the character seemed remarkably lacking in motivation. This was a problem. Not a big problem, obviously, because the experience of the entire play was still great, but it is a flaw nonetheless. Stone’s version is not as epic as it could be, because the motivation of the character who instigates the tragedy is relatively unknown. Manipulation of emotion is the second way to create a feel of epic-ness, remember, and the presentation of a character’s motivation is one of the ways an audience member can feel empathy with a character. A serial killer is very hard to empathise with. A serial killer who is killing because his father beat him as a child, however, is somewhat easier to feel for. Think of the television show Dexter. The audience would have a hard time feeling any sympathy for the serial killer at all if he wasn’t constantly narrating and letting them in on his thoughts – continually presenting to them his motivation.
We have to be careful, though. One assumes that Gregers’ motivation was much more fleshed out in Ibsen’s original text. But I’m not trying to suggest that Mr. Stone should have added extra scenes into the play, thus diluting the interpretation, to help explain Gregers’ motives. No. That is an extremely slippery slope to argue on, because it ends up very quickly at Mr. Stone continually adding extra bits to the play to show more about the characters, extra bit by extra bit, until he ends up with the full Ibsen version once again. This is not what he was trying to achieve. The lack of motivation for some of the characters was a problem, but Mr. Stone had a trick up his sleeve – music. But that’s for the technical part. Nevertheless, it should be known that he has compensated – not entirely, but mostly – for what he has lost during the distillation. Remember what he’s been doing before? Spinning the set, adding dramatic pauses – Ibsen needed none of this to achieve what he did in his own playtext, but he had a lot more space and time to do it in. One might ask why Mr. Stone restricted himself in such a way. I don’t know why. But he did. And that’s what matters.
I’m somewhat lost. I went off on a tangent and can’t remember where I left the main branch. Let me go back and read what I just wrote. Right.
What I’ve been trying to say for the past one or two thousand words is that the reason why The Wild Duck felt epic was because it was filled to the brim with important events – it didn’t matter that there was very little time between each of them (30+ scenes in less than 90 minutes, I think), it was the quantity and quality that mattered. What I was trying to argue for was that all of this concentration, this distillation, is possible, because of how our minds and memory works. We don’t think in time, we think in important events. In fact, we’re horrible, terrible, at thinking in terms of time. We think not in seconds, but in moments. I just repeated myself. I just repeated myself.
I’ve used that joke before. Not in this review. But somewhere else. Moving on.
We remember the important things, and when we recall them, we only tell the important things – it’s what makes a good storyteller. Why was it that I remembered that I dripped sweat onto Belvoir’s counter? Because it was important to me. I don’t remember walking up the street. I don’t remember climbing the stairs to the theatre. I remember the sweat. Would I have remembered the sweat so specifically if I hadn’t dripped sweat onto the counter? I doubt it. The moments leading up to watching the play would have been even blurrier and unmemorable for me.
Mr. Stone writes in his Director’s Note:
We are very consciously choosing the one moment in our characters’ lives where everything went wrong. This is an inherently manipulative authorial act and one that must be predicated on the awareness that life is not usually like this for these characters.
So true, so true. “Everything goes wrong” is rather important. As Hjalmar, played by Ewen Leslie, says in the play during a scene where he is watching a nature documentary about whales: “the beaching was the highlight”. Almost slipping into meta-theatricality, methinks.
What Mr. Stone perhaps didn’t realise – he may very well have fluked it, after all – was that when “everything goes wrong”, all the events in it have to be important. This is perhaps why The Only Child failed – too many of the events weren’t important, and so epic-ness was lost. If A Streetcar Named Desire was only three scenes, with Blanche being raped in the second and getting shipped off to the asylum in the third, the audience would have seen the same outcome, but would have felt much less. Indeed, Stanley says, “we’ve had this date with each other from the beginning,” and so he could’ve acted on his urges any time. But there would be no feeling of the epic. There would be much less emotion instilled in the audience because the other eight scenes were filled with motivation-presentation, and there would have been a loss of epic-ness due to the lack of important events between the opening and final scene. The motivation-presentation can be compensated for – the lack of important events can’t.
I’m going to summarise everything again to make the point that I had no idea I was going to make abundantly clear. The reason why a play like The Wild Duck can be successful in such a condensed form is because the more important events you pack into a play, the more time that seems to have passed, and the more epic the play feels.
RIGHT. Moving on. I believe we’ve reached the technical section of the three Ts. How exciting.
Technique – that is, the directorial flourishes, as it were – is extremely important. Duh. But it’s even more important in an interpretation such as this, because more is required than would normally be the case. If one was to direct Ibsen’s version of The Wild Duck, you would have to be concerned with the pacing, the actors, the sets, and so on, and once all of those had been dealt with, the production would have a good chance of being well received by critical bastards such as myself, assuming I could be bothered to come down from my ivory tower. I mean, I called the tradesman about getting an elevator put in, but they’re still working on it, and there are just so many stairs…
With a version such as Mr. Stone’s, doing all the above isn’t enough. More needs to be done for the play to have any chance of succeeding. Ibsen was a smart man. He was careful with his structure, careful with his important moments, his revelations, his characters. If there was a comparison to be made between Ibsen’s original text and Mr. Stone’s version of it, it would be that Ibsen’s was more foolproof. You just have to make sure that you don’t, excusing the French, fuck it up. Not so in Mr. Stone’s version. That just won’t do. You have to actively compensate for the script. So, knowing this, the next question to ask would be, “Why Adam, you magnificent critical beast you,” (Oh stop it! You’re making me blush…), “how did Mr. Stone compensate for his script?”
These compensational…compensationary…compensationarial…these compensating – there we go – these compensating techniques are what we will now concern ourselves with.
As a sidenote, it’s interesting to ponder whether the direction of modern theatrical writing is shifting the burden of emotion away from the words on the page and towards the director. One wonders if the problem with some over-eager avant-garde-type directors is that they’re implementing such compensating directorial techniques towards highlighting the ideas in their plays, rather than the emotion/important-events that they need to bring out, thus eliminating any sense of the epic. Mr. Stone does exactly the opposite in The Wild Duck.
The first technique that Mr. Stone used in the play was the set – the glass walls. There were two reasons for this. One, it stopped the duck from shitting all over the audience (excusing the French once more – they’re being very rude today). Two, it further removed any kind of realistic aspect to the play, which, considering how condensed and fast it was played, needed to be removed. Yes, there were other reasons as well, mainly metaphorical, but I’m not all that interested in them right now.
The second, and by far most important, technique was the music. Oh, how bad this production would have been without the music! Is there no more concentrated art form than music? Can you think of anything else that packs so much emotion into such little time? Indeed, the music in The Wild Duck is used in such an effective way, so different from The Promise and The Only Child (and I’m not entirely sure there was any particularly notable music in The Only Child), that one wonders whether someone took Mr. Stone aside between productions and said, “have you thought about going to the opera – they do some fancy things with music there, you know”.
There are two types of music that Mr. Stone uses in this production – tension-sustaining and emotion-amplifying. We start with the tension-sustaining, as did the director.
I’m going to quote myself from part one. Feel free to take potshots at my ego while I do. The quote is in reference to the style of music played during the first half of the play:
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.
I’ve no idea if I’ve got the instruments right, but the description seems apt to me – especially the ‘shunting’ part. I chose that word more for its sound than its meaning. What I wanted was a word that suggested that the music was trying to push the audience forward, that it was trying to pull the emotions along. There is no tension without emotion, after all. I should point out that even though I’ve made the distinction between tension-sustaining and emotion-amplifying, both types of music are concerned purely with the emotional state of the audience – tension is an emotion (according to myself, anyway).
This is how Mr. Stone compensates for the distilled script. We no longer have the luxury of hearing all of the characters’ motivations and being given the time to fully empathise with them. Indeed, we can only partly empathise – though when I say “partly” I do not necessarily mean a percentage lower than 50%, say – with the characters, because the scenes are moving so fast that there’s no time. There isn’t a spare minute or two for us to watch Blanche sneaking a tumbler of whisky.
Nevertheless we do get some motivation, and feel some empathy for the characters before a scene finishes. Then the lights go out, the music starts up – loud, clear, tense, directed – and the next scene is readied. There is, I think you’ll find, a sort of emotional attenuation in the theatre. Any emotion that an audience member has will instantly start to degrade if nothing is done by the director or the playwright to keep it fresh, or to enlarge it. Ibsen did all this work himself, wrote it all into his script. Mr. Stone’s version being distilled, he only creates the emotion initially, but nothing in the script is there to sustain it, to stop it from attenuating. That’s what the music is for.
Of course, the music is also there so that the audience isn’t bored during the scene changes, and so we don’t hear the set being changed. But mainly it’s to keep the emotion fresh. To keep the tension up. Mr. Stone’s script feeds us a little bit of emotion here, a bit more emotion there, and the music locks it into place so that we don’t forget it. We, as an audience, are not given time to take a break, we’re not given time to speculate about what will happen next, or what has happened. No sooner has the scene finished than the instant blackout darkens the theatre and we’re once more blasted with this tense music that keeps us in a sort of suspended state. What this tension-sustaining music does, in effect, is to stop the banal from seeping in between the cracks opened during the scene changes.
It would be interesting to try and analyse the two sets of emotional states in Ibsen’s original and Mr. Stone’s version. One wonders whether the emotional state of an audience member in Ibsen is perhaps higher initially than in Mr. Stone’s version, but whether it then degrades to around the same level as Mr. Stone’s; whereas Mr. Stone doesn’t have the time to create the emotion to such intensity, but manages to sustain it once he has. That sounds like work, however. Work I can’t be bothered doing. I suspect Ibsen would come out on top, though.
Anyway. This is the pattern of the first half: scene, blackout/music, scene, blackout/music, etc. Important-event/emotion, tension-sustain, important-event/emotion, tension-sustain, and so on. Then at the beginning of the second half, Hjalmar finally confronts his wife about all he has found out, and emotions erupt – and make sure to note this – for the first time in the play.
God I hope I’m right about that. Horrible memory, remember?
Gina admits to her husband that she slept with Gregers’ father while they were dating. Hjalmar, obviously, is none too pleased. Emotions explode. Beforehand, there were only tidbits here and there of the chess pieces being moved around, the little snippets of tension and whatnot being thrown at us… But now – now – the music that we had before, the tension-sustaining type, is no longer needed, not when the emotion on stage has sky-rocketed. After this point, we no longer hear the tension-sustaining music – no more string quartet for us!
It should be noted that this eruption of emotion wouldn’t have been anywhere near as effective as it was if it hadn’t come after a period of tension. Indeed, if the music hadn’t been there to provide the connective tissue, as it were, between the scenes – keeping the banal out, holding the tension near – the confrontation between Hjalmar and Gina would have been a bit of a fizzer, I suspect.
After the confrontation, Hjalmar storms out of the apartment, and Gina breaks down. This is when the second half of the play starts. How do we know? Firstly, the lack of tension-sustaining music, and secondly, the lighting change. No longer is the set warmly lit like it was before, with the black walls fading into shadow – no, now the characters are bathed in a white fluorescent light, like a reptile exhibit at the zoo. Secrets have been revealed. Things are being exposed. The light is no longer warm and cosy, but harsh and unforgiving. The truth, it seems, is not very pretty.
As the light changes, a new type of music kicks in – the emotional-amplifying kind. We’re pounded with a heavy metal arrangement as Gina stumbles around the set, bawling her eyes out – not that we can hear her, though that’s part of the effect.
I shouldn’t need to explain how music can amplify an emotion. All of us are emotionally affected by music.
I mentioned before about the shift, as I possibly see it, between the ‘word’ as responsible for the emotion to the ‘director’ as responsible for the emotion. It’s interesting to look at some of the most modern theatre that I’ve seen – what some people might call ‘experimental’ or ‘avant-garde’ – and note how much of it uses not just music, but loud music. Measure for Measure did. Love Me Tender did. Hamlet by the Schaubuhne did. It’s as if the directors are reaching out from behind the stage and trying to smash a pair of cymbals around the audience’s head – “Feel! Feel! Feel!” And when you consider that most modern theatre is currently in the process of getting rid of the narrative, or at least devaluing it, it’s not surprising that music – which, to be honest, is basically the easiest and most efficient way to create emotion in an audience member – is being used to such an extent. Sometimes it has the desired effect. Sometimes you put your fingers in your ears and wait for it to finish. This time it worked.
The loud music created a kind of fight-or-flight response. You were already feeling bad for Gina, and now you have this lump in your throat as you watch her writhe in emotional agony.
After that moment, no music was used until the very end of the play. Indeed, there was no opportunity to use any more music. The lights had changed, and so had the structure of the scenes. No more would the lights blackout and the set be rearranged. Instead, the characters would walk on and offstage in full view of the audience, providing no break at all between scenes. What was once a theatrical experience of throwing a splotch of emotion here, a splodge of emotion there, and trying to tie it all together, was now transformed into almost a single emotional arc, set to a slow boil. There was the emotional high of Gina’s heavy-metal breakdown, and now the play set about building on that emotion. Remember, the music that had been played before was merely tension-sustaining, and so couldn’t amplify any of the emotions. It was useless now at this point of the play. Music can only do so much, after all. The writing and the actors have their jobs to do as well.
So now the audience is treated not to a cosy candid-camera type situation that characterises the first half of the play, but a much more sinister examination of the unfolding tragedy. With the harsh lighting and the lack of music, it could almost have been described as a post-mortem or dissection. It is not by chance that Mr. Stone refers to his wish to find the “anatomy of tragedy” in the Director’s Note. Or something along those lines, anyway.
One scene blends into another, tensions well and truly rise – rather than being sustained – and we come to the climactic moment of the play – Hedvig’s suicide. Hjalmar, having found out that Hedvig is the daughter of Gregers’ father and not his own, spurns her – in quite strong language – and watches as she runs off. Gina comes into the room and pleads with him to stay, and he almost does, when, suddenly, BANG. The theatre rings with the tinnitus of an explosion – artifical, obviously, but crucial – and once again we see but do not hear the characters. “What was that?!” Hjalmar mouths. Gina responds. The lights black out – for the first time since the start of the second half, and the music – an emotional-amplifying type – bursts the eardrums of everyone in the room. No longer are we presented with a string quartet, nor do we hear a reprise of the heavy-metal. This time a full orchestra shoves the emotion down our throats.
I left the theatre feeling that the use of the music in the play was a cheap trick, but it worked on me anyway.
There is no point in me trying to describe the story that leads up to Hedvig’s suicide – read it on Wikipedia if you must – but the moment when the gun went off… Hedvig was not on stage, so you weren’t entirely sure that she had killed herself – there could have been other reasons for the gun going off…
It was the most shocking thing I’ve not seen in a theatre. The effect that that moment had on me cannot be understated.
Nausea was a part of it.
Remember, I knew nothing about the play beforehand – I had no idea that Hedvig was going to shoot herself. It came as a complete surprise, even after the clunky scene where Hjalmar’s father spent a few minutes showing Hedvig how to use the shotgun – a scene that was most certainly not smoothly integrated into the narrative, unlike my tale of sweat was in part one (shut up, I know that’s not a very good example). Indeed, it stuck out tremendously at the time, but I had all but forgotten it by the end. Obviously it needed to be there, to foreshadow the suicide, but I can’t help the feeling that it was handled badly. Less a case of Chekhov’s Gun and more Ibsen’s Shotty, methinks.
But let me take you on the emotional journey I had from the moment of the suicide to the beginning of the final scene (the suicide happened in the second last scene).
It started with some thoughts along the lines of “what the fuck?”. Then, “someone’s fired the gun”. Then the lights went out and the music kicked in. Adrenalin rushed through my body. I started to feel slightly nauseous – nothing so bad as would have required me to run out of the theatre or anything, but my stomach was most definitely unsettled. At about this time my neurons were telegraphing a constant stream of “oh god, oh god, oh god” to my consciousness. I suspect that my knuckles were white.
Hedvig’s killed herself, hasn’t she? No, no, not necessarily – she could still be alive. No, it could just be the duck – didn’t Gregers say that she should kill the duck? Yes, that’s right, she’s gone and killed the duck. But…but that seems so anticlimactic. Who would end a play by shooting a duck? Oh god. No, no, she must be dead. But she wouldn’t have shot herself. She wouldn’t have. She seemed so smart, so intelligent – why would an intelligent person go and do something like that? She had her whole life in front of her.
And so it went on. The music must have lasted at least half a minute, flaring the emotional flame into a bonfire. Ten or twenty seconds later I came to terms with her suicide, though ‘came to terms with’ seems like the wrong phrase – I accepted her suicide. Though there was still hope, right? We as an audience wasn’t explicitly told that she had killed herself, surely there was to be another scene? Things weren’t going to be left up in the air, were they?
I don’t think my thoughts have ever raced as much as they did at the moment. At least not in a theatrical setting. I can think of only one word to describe it.
Emotionally, physiologically, and mentally, epic.
But there was one more scene left. The steam had to be let out of the pressure-cooker. The lights come back on and there is Hjalmar and Gina, together for the anniversary of Hedvig’s death, outside the glass. Outside. The lights were back to a warm glow, the examination had been completed, and now we were presented with two characters trying to get on with their lives. No longer were we seeing that “one moment in our characters’ lives where everything goes wrong”. We were now seeing that tragedy isn’t the end of things. That life goes on.
Hjalmar tries to reconnect romantically with Gina, but she’s having none of it. The rejection is gentle, however. And then they both leave the stage, but continue talking. We hear them over the speakers in the theatre. They’re on the footpath, Gina trying to hail a taxi. We hear the cars, the birds, the wind. We hear the first sounds from the world. No longer trapped behind glass, the characters are free to breathe the air outside, free from the post-mortem claustrophobia. Everything about that scene was geared towards release. Release from the glass. Release from the very unrealistic conventions of the play – a move towards a more naturalistic treatment. Release from the loud music. Release from the electronic screens telling us what day and what time it is. Release from the tension. The audience as a whole is released back into the real world. If the moment before was shocking, was nauseating, was emotionally terrifying, then this moment afterwards was one of beautiful grief and serene reminiscence. A moment to look back and see not only how far we have come, but feel it as well.
The catharsis, if one wanted the technical term, I suppose. The time for us to learn from the characters’ mistakes.
And so I sit here, thinking back to that moment, and then remember that I should be writing a play right now for the Griffin Award – remember the one that I had written 450 words of? Due on the 11th March, it is, so there’ll be no time to either finish it or get it to Griffin before the deadline. I sit here, on my bed, my laptop next to me pulling the blue sheet down slightly with its weight so that there are all these lines, all these creases radiating out from it, almost as if it’s the nerve centre, and so I sit here, on my bed, and I think to myself, “another opportunity wasted”. Another chance to further myself and instead I’ve frittered it away, I’ve wasted my time, for no one remembers the critic, not unless they’ve done something else with their lives – and whatever that something is I’ve yet to do it.
It’s 8th March at the moment of writing this, though I’ve been at the review on and off for about a fortnight, I suspect. But now its coming to an end – I have a deadline, for my moans about the Griffin Award will not be as effective if they echo after the due date – tomorrow I post the first part, which should be yesterday if you’re reading this now. I rushed this, I hurried to get it done, and only now have I realised how terrible that is – not only was I not writing a play but I’ve been working determinedly to get something else done before the deadline, as if I was taunting myself – “Look, Adam, you’ve written 20,000 words – why, if only you’d used those words for your play instead, you’d have done something with your life by now.”
And what a waste. I’m under no illusions – half of this review is crap, and the other half is slightly-better-written crap. And down the canon’s sewer it goes.
The blinds of my room are open, and my room is glowing, though there’s a few items that are highlighted – a stripe of brightness on my Rubik’s cube, a flickering blob on my ceiling near a hook that used to hold a mobile when I was a child. I hear Moonlight Sonata playing on the radio. Outside, between the wave of my awning and the slant of my neighbour’s roof, I can see a patch of blue sky almost the colour of my bed sheets, though it’s brushed with white clouds. I flick a pen around my fingers as I think of what to write next.
I received an email from Griffin today – nothing special, just a newsletter. In it was an advertisement for an upcoming event – The Five Story Project. Five playwrights, it seems, from the NIDA Playwriting course, have contributed to it. It is a reminder that drags me kicking and snivelling to the day in December last year when I got a letter regretfully informing me that I hadn’t been chosen. Happy memories. Happy memories.
Five playwrights. I vaguely recall being told at some point that I was in competition with all the other applicants for six positions, which is something that perturbs me somewhat, though I refuse to think of it any longer – my psychological state doesn’t need me going down that particular tangent, that slippery slope, at the moment. But I think back to the interview for NIDA anyway, and I remember them asking me what I’d do if I wasn’t accepted. I thought about saying “suicide”, though I didn’t, as I doubt the joke would have gone down well.
I remember that on the application form I’d written “keep buggering on”, in reference to Winston Churchill, and I think I said something to that effect. I told them that I’d keep doing my reviews. I told them I’d try to write two plays a year. I told them about a few opportunities I had created for myself, though “opportunities” was far too strong a term for what I was referring to. I told them about the few gusts of kindnesses I had received in my endless sea of doubt, one in particular which had them almost jumping out of their seats – “why didn’t you send him your play?!” “Because it was terrible,” I told them, which probably wasn’t the best thing to say, but it was the truth. That kindness is still extended, I assume, though I can’t receive it even if I wanted to, because I don’t have a play. I have a review.
I think back to Kenneth Tynan, that extraordinary critic, and how he stopped reviewing theatre after ten years to pursue other areas that he was less talented in, that he, basically, wasted his life on. I want to do the same thing at some point, though obviously I believe that I have more of a chance in the other areas than he did. Then again, so did he. I know how he felt, though. Reviewing can be a very empty experience, always feeding off another’s art. I suppose I’ve tried to sever that connection somewhat, though you can’t disconnect completely. I know just how Tynan felt, for the parasite has no freedom.
I’m looking for a job at the moment, and I had an interview the other week for an IT position. I mentioned my playwriting and the interviewer asked me, “do you think you’d try for NIDA again next year?” I said no, or probably not, and added that “Shakespeare didn’t need to get a degree”, that “most other writers have managed without one”. I think I’m in with a chance for the job, though the thought of working… It’s not the working that bothers me, it’s the feeling of spinning the wheels everyday just so I have money – if I consider writing this review a waste, you can imagine my position towards a day job.
There are more clouds now.
I don’t know if I’d try again, for NIDA. One of the subjects in the course is called “Music and Performance”. How useful would I find such a subject, I wonder – what could I learn at NIDA that I can’t teach myself through my reviews? Because that is all they are half the time – practice. An apprenticeship. So I wonder what the use of me trying again is. And then I think of the time it would afford me – a year to write without any stresses, without having to look for a job, without having to worry about Centrelink trying to gouge any trace of spirit out of me. And then I think of the possible rejection, and think of how I currently subsist on the few kindnesses I get every now and then. I can handle a play being rejected, but to apply to NIDA and be rejected again – that is more of a rejection of an oeuvre, something that hits much harder.
I remember that during the interview we discussed my writing samples for less than a minute, and how surprised I was at the end that they’d barely been mentioned. He asked me to describe my style, I said “stupid but intelligent”, half joking, and he concurred. “That’s just what I got when I read it.” And that was that. We moved on to other subjects. Many others. Like the musicality, not of performance, but of the language in a play. The music behind the words. I told them an anecdote about Beckett’s mistake in Krapp’s Last Tape, where he violated the Rule of Threes in the play’s structure, something he rectified when he directed it later in life (though the official script was never changed). I talked to them as well about how much of a musical and melodic basis the language has in the scene where Krapp is searching for the right spool, how Beckett knew exactly when he should write the stage direction “surprised”, how he was correct to do so. It seemed pretty obvious to me but it piqued their interest. “Do we have plans for a course like that?”
I notice a white streak of sun on the wall behind where I’m sitting – there’s a mirror directly opposite me. I glance at my reflection and notice a red splotch on my neck that spreads halfway from my larynx to the side, a red line right in the spot where you would slice a razor if you were inclined to do such a thing. I wonder how far the blood would spurt if the artery were to be opened, if it would even spurt at all. Maybe it would just weep down my chest in thick, sticky streams. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen someone bleed profusely in real life.
There’s a pigeon on the television aerial on my neighbour’s roof now, preening itself, not a care in the world. The Wild Pigeon, no less! What does it do but eat, sleep, and make pigeon babies? Sometimes I wonder whether the difference between an artist and the rest of society is that the artist isn’t satisfied with procreation as a way of achieving immortality. Offspring are autonomous. Art isn’t. But then again, children are much easier to make than art. Trying to write every day – trying to just get started – sometimes feels like steeling yourself to slice open a vein in your arm and let the words pour onto the paper, not in the sense of spilling emotion, but in the sense of how draining it is to create something.
And there it goes, flying away. If only the obligations of society were as easy to escape from. If only the obligations of life were.
If NIDA invited me to do the course next year, I’d do it in a heartbeat, in one pump of my blood. But if I had to apply again myself… It’s the risk, I think. Personally, I’m very risk-averse, though I like to think that I’m the complete opposite when it comes to my artistic life. Contradictions provide a lovely tension, I find. And if you don’t allow yourself to fail, you’ll never do anything worthwhile, so given that you will fail at some point, at least make sure you do it spectacularly. Much like this review, I suppose.
Not that I’ll be invited. I can’t predict the future, though I’m about as certain as I can be that nothing like that will happen.
I wrote a short story once about an old mirror in an attic. It wasn’t a very good short story, but the idea was interesting enough. The occupant of the house – a man, a writer – found this mirror, and when he took the shroud off, saw that the mirror was reflecting the world one minute into the future. I developed this idea by showing how the author would write by sitting next to the mirror with an empty book in view of it, and watch himself, a minute in the future, writing. All he had to do was copy down what his future-self was writing, and once he learned to read the reflected text, he did so. He killed himself in the end. I can’t remember why.
I remember telling the interviewers that I didn’t like anything I wrote. “Like nails on a chalkboard,” I said. Neither of them asked me why I thought I deserved to get into NIDA if I believed that nothing I wrote was any good. I was thankful for that. If they had asked, I would’ve told them that it was because I wanted to get better. I wanted to improve. I know I could do it by myself, and would continue to after I left NIDA, but the course felt like a good opportunity to accelerate the process.
I hope I will be great one day, and even though I know I’m nothing now, I have this feeling, completely unsubstantiated, that I will get somewhere. Statistically, the argument is much less convincing. Indeed, I’d say that I’m far more likely to see another hundred interrupted shows at Belvoir than get a play of my own put on there. But then, chance has little to do with such things. There’s a one in ten billion chance that someone will be the next Shakespeare, but for the next Shakespeare, the chance is 100%.
And so I think to my story with the mirror, and I wonder what it would be like to have a mirror that showed not the one minute into the future, but much further. Two hundred years, five hundred years, a millennium. If I had that mirror, and I saw what my legacy would be – if I removed probability from the equation – and I saw that I was nothing, that I had been long forgotten, what would I do?
Look, the pigeon’s back! Though maybe it’s not the same one – I’m not much of an ornithologist. Still, it gives the eyes something interesting to focus on while the mind wanders elsewhere, though time’s running out, both for this review and the day itself. The shadow from my head on the wall behind me is growing longer by the minute. But the red splotch is still there on my neck – surely it should have faded by now. Maybe I’ve been absent-mindedly scratching across my throat, though I’ve no idea why – it seems like such a weird area to scratch, so very direct, so conscious. And to do it in the same spot over and over again. I mean, it’s not even itchy. Weird.
You know, I used to, when I was a kid, get “itchy” and “scratchy” mixed up. “I’m so scratchy, I want to itch myself.” I’ve got a better hold of the English language nowadays.
Anyway, thankfully, there’s no mirror that will show me the future, so I remain in the dark about such things, which is the way it should be, I suspect, even though it causes much grief. Even Shakespeare had no idea that his reputation would be so great after he died. I wonder if he felt the same as any other writer. If he felt the same as me. Though I doubt – no – though I know that my first play isn’t as good as Titus Andronicus, language especially, he must have realised that his play wasn’t very good either. Still, he obviously thought he could do better, so he wrote another. Such optimism for the future, even though the evidence of the present is very little cause for hope. Such drive and certainty that one will be better against all odds.
Faith negates flaws, I suppose.
I seem to have gotten a bit sidetracked again, though. What was I talking about? Ahh, yes – Hedvig. I remember the sickness I felt in my stomach when I heard that gun go off, when my mind raced with the possibilities as to what had happened. I remember trying to reason that it couldn’t have been Hedvig shooting herself, because she was so intelligent, that she wouldn’t go and do a stupid thing like that, that she had so much to live for. But now I see that it’s not so clear, because here was a girl that had just been spurned in one of the most brutal ways by her father, had just had all love cut off from her, with no hope of ever receiving it again – or at least that is what she must have thought. “No one loves me, my father can’t bear the sight of me, what is there to live for? What hope do I have for love in the future, for adoration? If I know that no one in the future will love me, will care about me, then what is the point of going on? What is the point of struggling when in the end I’ll have achieved nothing?” At least that is what I think her thought process would be like.
I remember thinking to myself, “I’d never do something like that”. I recoiled from her action. Some deaths are heroic – hers was a waste. I listened to the orchestra blaring over the speakers and thought, “I wouldn’t waste my life like that”. So I suppose that’s where Hedvig and I differ.
Now – this is a tad unprofessional, but then again I’m an amateur critic, so maybe it’s allowed, but I have to go and bring the washing in. Back in a moment. Go and twiddle your thumbs while you wait. Then again, you won’t notice any difference when you’re reading the final product, so me telling you this is rather useless. Oh well.
I’m back! Did you miss me? Oh, shut up.
We’re nearing the end of the review now. Exciting, yes? I’m more excited than a ShamWow salesman! Are you pumped?!?!
So, I’ve got some notes that I’ve been writing so I don’t forget to mention anything that I wanted to mention in the review. I’m going to go through and get rid of the few offscraps that are left, okay? Okay? Great! Just a few hundred more words and then we can finally put this baby to rest and go have sex while it sleeps or something. Woo! Yeah!
I never got to talking about the themes of the play, so let’s mention them now. Truth. That’s about the only theme worth mentioning. When should the truth be known and when shouldn’t it, etc, etc. You know, I think it would have been really interesting if Mr. Schmitz’s character – that of Gregers, the one who sets off the tragedy by telling the truth – had his hair died white so he looked like Julian Assange of Wikileaks fame. Because it does bring up an interesting connection to Wikileaks, does it not? Who has a right to secrets, and is more harm done revealing them later on than is done by keeping them private? All very intriguing. Very contextual. It’s almost like the play might be able to comment on current society.
What next. Oh, yes, a few problems I never got around to discussing. First.
At the start of the play, when Gregers meets up with his old friend Hjalmar for the first time, Hjalmar expresses surprise that he called him, amazed that (a) he’s kept the same number for 18 years, and (b) that Hjalmar has had it in his phone for the same amount of time. That is, his mobile phone.
Unless the play is set in the future, this is utterly wrong. For many reasons. Firstly, no one keeps the same phone for 18 years. Secondly, mobile phones have not been readily commercially available for 18 years. Thirdly, even if the above two things were possible, Hjalmar’s phone would be a brick. Huge. Monstrous. Able to irradiate a man’s testicles in thirty seconds. (As opposed to a woman’s testicles, apparently. Sorry for the tautology.) Hjalmar’s phone was none of these things.
“You’re quibbling,” I hear you say. Well, quibble it may be, but I was thinking it as the scene was playing out in front of me, so I was losing focus on the play. This is not what the director wants, I assume.
The electronic screens that showed the time of the various scenes – they stayed on throughout, though the time never changed, even if the scene went for longer than a minute. I know the play is not a particularly realistic one, but freezing time seems a little extreme, wouldn’t you say? Especially considering that the actors were still moving and talking. Contradiction much? Hmph, I say, hmph! Sloppy!
I mean, what’s next – the usher tells us that the play will run for two hours, and then we get in the theatre and never return? We’re all just sucked into this eternal vortex and the outside world is none the wiser? Bloody postmodernists. Or modernists. Or anyone from the start of the 20th century onward, really.
Basically I’m blaming Dali and his melting clocks. Bastard.
Right. Third and final problem.
The kissing scene. At a point in the play, Gina and Hjalmar get involved in some hanky panky. This is all well and good except that they were both hooked up to microphones at the time, which meant that the audience could hear every slurp and slobber as they chewed each other’s faces off. I assume that Mr. Stone left the scene like it was because to turn the microphones off might be a little distancing for the audience, wondering why they can’t hear anything, though I myself was distanced from the scene because of the sound they were making. Perhaps the volume could be turned down somewhat for that moment? Just a suggestion.
And that’s it. Done and dusted and allergen-cleansed. Those were the rest of my problems with the play, or at least the ones I remembered.
Still, pretty good play otherwise. Go and see it already.
And now it’s time to proofread. Wonderful. Writing is exhausting, you know. And it makes me hungry. Or maybe it’s the forgetting to eat while I’m writing that does. But look, I can see myself in the mirror, and I look tired, but then again that might just be the sun setting and casting shadows where shadows wouldn’t normally be. Who knows.
The red splotch is gone, though. Things are looking up!
9/10. The Wild Duck by Simon Stone and Chris Ryan after Henrik Ibsen at Belvoir Upstairs until 27th March. Directed by Simon Stone. With John Gaden, Anita Hegh, Ewen Leslie, Eloise Mignon, Anthony Phelan, and Toby Schmitz. Set by Ralph Myers. Costume by Tess Schofield. Lighting by Niklas Pajanti. Composition and Sound Design by Stefan Gregory.