Symbols and events in Ibsen’s plays often have contradictory meanings. Depending on how you tilt your head, for instance, Hedda Gabler’s suicide can be either a capitulation to a controlling society or a rebellion against domination. But in production, this ambiguity can easily lead to vagueness, which may explain why Oslo’s National Theater of Norway has opted for an unwavering interpretation of “The Wild Duck.” The company’s work — presented at BAM in Norwegian with English surtitles — makes a bold, clear statement on the play.
Tellingly, director Eirik Stubo never lets us see the marsh in Hjalmar Ekdal’s apartment loft. A second-rate photographer and dilettante inventor, Ekdal (Gard Eidsvold) spends less time working than hunting birds in his pseudo-wetland. His wife, Gina (Agot Sendstad), and daughter, Hedvig (Birgitte Larsen), must run the family’s photography business while he shambles after fowl.
The marsh announces the play’s central theme: “the life-lie.” Hjalmar convinces himself he’s a great inventor, in control of his destiny. But like most of these characters, he’s wandering in a false paradise. Truth comes from Gregers (Eindride Eidsvold), who insists on showing Hjalmar that Gregers’ father is actually in charge, secretly giving money to the Ekdals. The other man may even have fathered Hedvig, and the drastic conclusion suggests no one lives happily when denied their fantasies of the truth.
In Stubo’s production, the truth obliterates everyone from the beginning. The set is a faux-wood wall that’s a foot taller than the actors. It runs across the stage and into the wings, suggesting it goes on forever. Looming, the barrier dwarfs everything before it, announcing that these people are hemmed into their lives. Even without Gregers’ meddling, unpleasant facts are draining them of blood.
And there’s no escaping to the wilderness. Though characters climb over the wall, we never see behind it. If it’s never an onstage reality — as it is in Ibsen’s original — the marsh loses its power.
One could argue the marsh — with its titular, wounded duck — represents a liberating alternative to the soul-killing order of the world. It’s a place where one actually could invent something instead of being beholden to the oppressive order of the world. But if we can’t see into the loft, the battle between possibilities is hopelessly uneven.
Accordingly, the cast behaves like their inner wilderness has burned. Thesps are uniformly restrained, and even the biggest emotions feel tamped down. With polite gestures and small expressions, perfs are defined by their gaping silences. The effect is unsettling. The life-lies haven’t worked in years.
The play doesn’t have to feel this way. Hjalmar could start with an energy that eventually gets sapped by the truth. There could be a slow tragedy as the last wild part of him — visualized by an onstage marsh — dies.
By denying those options, the production cedes to pessimism. Instead of a last battle between opposing approaches to life, we see an inevitable concession to emptiness.
Creatives prove this approach can hold interest. Each element of the staging fits together like the gears in a perfect machine, and watching it operate is always impressive.
The company’s precision also makes their thinking clear. Even auds that disagree with the production’s point of view can know exactly what they’re reacting against. It’s fitting for an Ibsen production to inspire that kind of debate.