Anita Hegh in The Wild Duck | Malthouse Theatre (Pic: Heidrun Lohr)
When theatre gets described as like television, it’s usually in the pejorative sense. Maybe it’s time to move on.

In an age of HBO, television has been the medium with which the finest writers, actors and directors have expressed some of the best stories of the past decade. This production of The Wild Duck, adapted from Henrik Ibsen’s classic play, takes its cues from the language of TV in order to bring a classic text to a modern audience.

It’s a bold adaptation, first brought to the stage by Belvoir St Theatre in Sydney last year. Simon Stone, with co-writer Chris Ryan, has stripped away most of the flesh of Ibsen’s 1884 play, dispensing with many of the characters, period setting and five-act structure. In fact, it’s a complete rewrite using the bare bones of the original play and written for an audience who grew up watching drama on the small screen.

The story plays out enclosed in a large glass box, a physical separation between the audience and the actors that keeps the melodrama cool and distant. The actors are miked which allows them to underplay their dialogue and maintain the feeling that as an audience, we’re voyeurs to their private worlds.

The scenes are short, the pace brisk. The plot has been reduced to a tight 90 minutes without interval, telemovie length, with sharp cuts between scenes across multiple locations. It’s a very digestible structure as we’re familiar with it already: we know the language and know how to fill in the gaps that aren’t spelled out by exposition.

There’s a clever logic to this shorthand. One can trace a direct line from Ibsen’s plays, at the time revolutionary in their structure, to modern ‘naturalistic’ television drama. The TV camera is allowed into private rooms and can linger on silent faces allowing subtexts to rise to the surface.

On the other hand, with this approach, we do lose some of the immediacy of the theatrical form — the direct connection between actor and audience, the rough magic of sharing a room with the characters. If the actors weren’t brilliant, the emotional intensity wouldn’t cross the glass barrier and the play would run out of air in its glass box. Fortunately, the actors are outstanding.

It’s a stellar cast doing some of their finest work. Stone has directed a series of beautiful scenes with some of the best actors working on the Australian stage. For the acting alone, this is a production worth checking out.

Toby Schmitz and Ewen Leslie play the estranged friends who are reunited after years apart. Gregers Werle (Schmitz) returns to his hometown carrying a secret that could destroy not only his family but his old friend Hjalmar Ekdal’s (Leslie) as well. After falling out with his father (John Gaden), Gregers stays with the Ekdal family (Anita Hegh, Eloise Mignon and Anthony Phelan) and disrupts their careful domestic harmony.

The bare bones of The Wild Duck are strong enough for the emotional impact to smash through Ralph Myers’ sterile glass set and punch the audience hard in the solar plexus. This is classic drama and you’d be foolish to miss it.

Turn off your television, get down to the Malthouse and let Ibsen show you how well-structured drama can still shake you to the core.

The details: The Wild Duck is at the Malthouse, in the Merlyn Theatre, until March 17. Tickets on the company website.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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