5 The Wild Duck - Anita Hegh - Ewen Leslie - Photo Heidrun Lohr-1

Belvoir. No longer with the “St Theatre” tail, tagging behind. Like Madonna or Oprah. This company needs no explanation… it’s built it’s reputation – and now the new artistic directorate (complete with a shiny brand new literary manager Anthea Williams) – is busy defining it’s new direction. There’s a fresh coat of paint in the foyer – lollipop ice-cream parlor colours to offset the new flavours, the new taste (?) of the Belvoir pick’n’mix. There’s been an overhaul. The print program look different – all but one artistic associate from the old Neil Armfield family remains in the form of a new work associate… And I am very curious to see how the old guard respond to this shift in aesthetic.

More than ever I think this production is emblematic in the shift of theatre makers in Sydney. Outmoded is the traditional role of the director. Now, as we have a designer at the top of the tree at Belvoir – and ex-actors (trained at various institutions) now directing and programming even writing, adapting the program and productions – I wouldn’t be so surprised if we see in the drop off in enrollments for directing and playwriting courses across the country as potential theatre-makers see acting as the primary skill that will land them these coveted positions of tastemaker, theatre creator. Even the assistant director on the current Belvoir show is primarily an actor – as was the director – as was the co-writer AND as was the dramaturg on this new version of Ibsen’s story. Interesting. No judgement. Just an observation of a new structure a new focus on the actor as auteur in Sydney’s theatre scene.

It is therefore in complete keeping with this newness, that there be a new version of The Wild Duck, a new production in a new style to herald a new phase – a new vision for the company.

I must admit I was powerfully underwhelmed by Simon Stone’s The Promise, which I reviewed in 2009 was proof to me that sometimes when someone inherits a project to direct – when their skill as a theatre maker is a little more overarching – that this can be the result – awkward, intellectual and a little soul-less. in complete contrast, I am overwhelmed with Simon Stone’s vision/re-invention of this classic. I wish now that he had been given this level of artistic freedom during The Promise, and I wonder what that would have looked like/how that would have changed.

Re-visioning this classic, Stone and Myers have removed the limitation of Ibsen’s one set naturalism. Instead, they have freed the story up by imagining and showing the off-stage scenes in the original text – and re-setting and re-imagining the story in contemporary Australian language. It is the set which is the main focus of this play – as one would expect from a theatre where the AD is a designer. And largely it is the inverse of Ibsen’s idea – the walls have been put in – glass walls on all sides – like an ant farm or a squash court. The text was freed, and so the actors were trapped. And if was a weird sensation for me to sit amongst the audience in a theatre known so well for it’s intimate “no one is very far from the action” seats… to be confronted (yes I do think its an audacious and confronting – and I don’t mean in a negative way, necessarily – experience) by a wall between the action. The live experience is then trapped – and perfectly thematic…

Sometimes, though we see each other clearly, often in relationships it is devastating to learn – that you can never truly know the internal mechanations of another. No matter how much you love them, or them love you… there is something that always seperates us. And no greater play to demonstrate this idea than the Wild Duck.

The long original play has been slimmed/skimmed and tailored to a 90 minute, film narrative. Purists will reel with disappointment. Others will rejoice at the bravery. My only personal response was the very long blackouts – yes designed as the magic trick of “how did they get in and out of the glass box” irritated me after the first few changes… and then the pay off – a blast of light and sound – leaving us with the whispering hum of a devastated broken-hearted wife, collapsed on the floor.

Simon Stone, you got me.

Ewan Leslie, you got me.

Anita Heigh, you got me.

Glass wall or not – I was there with you – heart pounding against a tiny ribcage, dry mouth, terror. Just wanting love to return, or be unconditional or to overcome the secret springboard that started their relationship.

Beautiful work.

Brave work.

Good work.

This is confronting – artistically and personally… and I think that is a good thing for the new Artistic directorate to start their season with what and how they want to make the work in their theatre. This is a new direction for Belvoir and I am keen to see more – to see the aesthetic story of their season for 2011…