The city of Melbourne, Australia is particularly known for its amazing coffee and bustling art scene. Those are just two of the many reasons I chose to study abroad here in spring. In an attempt to capitalize on the plethora of accessible film and theater in Melbourne, I took the tram to the fine arts campus of the University of Melbourne and attended the play The Wild Duck.
While many drama students may be familiar with Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s 1884 play, the version that premiered at the Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne this March was something completely innovative. This has everything to do with Simon Stone, an Australian film and theater writer/director, who is famous for his brilliant reinventions of classic works.
The 27-year-old Stone achieves this feat by setting older plays in a modern context, or, as Stone himself says: “I take the same subject matter and reflect on it for the new world.”
The Wild Duck links together the themes of family, lies, cheating and death. In this modern version, Stone boils the (originally much larger) cast down to six characters, allowing the audience more time to draw conclusions about each. The play begins when the main character, Gregers, returns home for his father Hakon’s wedding (to his much younger secretary, whom we never see in the play). There is much tension between father and son: Greger’s mother killed herself after discovering her husband’s many marital indiscretions.
In town, Gregers reconnects with his childhood friend Hjalmar, despite a massive falling out between the two families 18 years before. We also meet Hjalmar’s wife, Gina, precocious teenage daughter, Hedvig and his alcoholic father, Old Ekdal. Almost as soon as all six characters are introduced, everything in their lives begins to unravel. After Gregers learns about an affair his father and Gina had years ago, his confession of the truth triggers a set of events that end in destruction and death.
The play’s staging is also completely reworked in this version. While the plot takes place over a period of six days, the characters wear the same clothes virtually the whole time. Also, there are absolutely no pieces of furniture on stage and only props essential to driving the narrative forward are used. The result is a minimalism that allows deeper connection to the complex characters and leaves nothing lacking.
Because Stone grew up in Australia, he also adds some local charm to the production’s dialogue, adding in words and phrases like “heaps,” “you want a coffee?” and “how you going?” The Australian jargon spoken by Australian actors really helped ground the story in a modern, readily accessible context for the viewers.
The most original aspect of this contemporary version, however, is the “stage.” There is no typical raised-platform stage in this theatre. Instead, the audience faces a large room with dark gray carpet and tall black walls, entirely enclosed in glass. The actors enter from a door in the corner of the room and wear microphones at all times so the audience can hear every emotional utterance through the thick glass. Additionally, the reflection of the audience can vaguely be seen in the glass during the performance, with the actors behind. The result is an uneasy feeling of voyeurism, as if you are peering into the darkest moments of complete strangers’ lives.
Since premiering in Australia (first Sydney and now Melbourne), Stone’s adaptation of The Wild Duck has been met with great critical acclaim. The show picked up three 2011 Helpmann Awards and four 2011 Sydney Theatre Awards — including Best Play and Best Mainstage Production. While you might not be able to see this play yourself, keep a lookout for more works by daring theater writer/director Simon Stone and the play’s amazing Australian cast.