An unusually rich year for the classical canon in London comes to a triumphant close with “The Wild Duck,” Michael Grandage’s surpassingly incisive Donmar production of what many consider Ibsen’s greatest play. Not seen locally for 15 years, “Wild Duck” re-emerges in a new version from David Eldridge as a more disturbing piece than ever, its vision of casual human cruelty in the name of truth-telling eerily at odds with the times now as well as then. Grandage’s staging weaves its way through an intricate plot with assuredness and ease, sucking aud into a portrait of warped idealism that leaves infinite destruction in its wake.
That gleaming avatar of the truth at any price comes in the outwardly genial, quietly spoken form of Gregers Werle (Ben Daniels), who comes back into the life of long-ago chum Hjalmar Ekdal (Paul Hilton) only to send it careening into chaos.
Friends some 16 or so years ago, the two men now are divided by circumstance. Gregers is the son of wealthy widower Hakon Werle (a flinty-eyed William Gaunt) returned briefly to the fold, who decides instead to rent a room from impoverished photographer Hjalmar and his wife and daughter.
Deciding that Hjalmar is “surrounded by lies,” Gregers sees it as his mission to bring to the surface misdeeds and evasions that have gone unspoken for years — and that, once broached, lead to illumination, yes, but also death.
It turns out, with typical Ibsen knottiness, that the Ekdal and Werle families were intertwined in a way that goes beyond the young men’s onetime friendship. Hjalmar’s wreck of a father, Old Ekdal (a stagy turn from Peter Eyre), is the erstwhile lieutenant whom Werle pere ruined years before, while successful merchant Werle may or may not be the father of Hjalmar’s 14-year-old daughter, Hedvig (Sinead Matthews) –Hjalmar’s wife, Gina (Michelle Fairley, who has some of Joan Allen’s ashen-faced power), can’t be sure.
What is a fact is the slow loss of sight young Hedvig is experiencing, as Hjalmar’s late mother did: In a play very much about the price of clarity, blindness is everywhere at the periphery.
One could easily play “Wild Duck” for its melodramatic value, not least due to the symbol-mongering of a title matched, perhaps, only by Chekhov’s comparably bleak “The Seagull.” But Grandage deploys his exemplary cast with the utmost naturalism, making us witness to conversations we seem to be catching on the wing. The opening scene at Hakon Werle’s gala dinner for his prodigal son folds a crucial catch-up between the two central men into a larger hustle and bustle, information escaping only in shards.
And once Gregers infiltrates himself into Hjalmar’s home life, he subtly provokes a savage reckoning on a par with that eponymous duck, which both inhabits the family’s loft space and comes to speak for the actions of almost every major character.
Grandage cleverly pitches the play almost at the level of a moral thriller: Who at any given time knows what or is concealing what? The answers come from a cast alive to every shift in the “swamp of deceit” that gives the play its charge in what, following “The Philanthropist” and “Mary Stuart,” has been the Donmar’s strongest season in years.
The company, rather bravely for so long an engagement of a difficult play, boasts no outright stars, just the sorts of theater stalwarts on which London thrives. Enacting a cat-and-mouse game that leads to crisis, Daniels and Hilton are ideally matched as the male leads. His good looks as seductive as Gregers’ overall project is scary, Daniels is far from the “ugly” Gregers spoken of by Gina. The casting only accentuates Ibsen’s implicit point about the cult of charisma: In his apparently unforced certitude, Daniels’ Gregers brings to mind certain politicians who have a calmly articulated way of doing ill. (He suffers, we’re told, from “this ‘I am always right’ disease.”)
As his supposed soul mate-turned-victim, Hilton lends a lanky contemporaneity to the would-be inventor Hjalmar, who suffers from “melancholy” while insisting on the need for happiness. “You have to think about the darker side of life every now and again,” Hjalmar reports in Eldridge’s newly crisp version of Ibsen’s 1884 text. But for all Hjalmar’s ruminative powers, his tragedy is to turn against his own family impulsively and without real foundation; he’s a walking version of the pistol deployed at the play’s climax.
Everyone serves the text and an enveloping sense of ensemble as they stalk Vicki Mortimer’s aptly Nordic set. (Neil Austin’s eerie lighting seems to get brighter as the play darkens, while Adam Cork’s shimmering soundscape amplifies the mood of unease.) Playing the resident cynic, Relling, Nicholas Le Prevost brings an unshowy gravitas to the role of a layabout “doctor of sorts” who has come to one conclusion: “Most people are sick, unfortunately.”
And yet, they needn’t be — shouldn’t be — when it comes to the blighted teenage Hedvig, played in one of the performances of the year by a little-known thesp, Matthews, who is a decade older than her character. Hedvig’s hesitant speech colored by an odd laugh, her jerky spasms suggesting an ailment beyond mere eyesight, the actress makes an unforgettable case for innocence amid a landscape that knows only lies. “I say a prayer for my duck every night to be preserved from dying and everything evil,” Hedvig reports, her prayers dashed on the unforgiving shoals that make “The Wild Duck” so savage and brilliant a play.