Here, a disclaimer: if you have liked The Wild Duck, that is your prerogative and I respect it. If you are going to disagree with me, please do not suggest that I hate all Australian, Melbourne, mainstage, or theatre theatre, because I don’t. Also don’t bring up anything along the lines of: we must support our artists/the general audience needs no reason to avoid theatre further/I am mean and/or envious which makes me look bad. I have taken considerable time out of my schedule to write this, in hotels in Malaysia and sublets in Berlin, because it nagged at me, as an intellectual problem.
I was very disappointed with Simon Stone’s The Wild Duck (at Malthouse, on loan from Sydney’s Belvoir). After it received very positive reviews and many awards from a variety of sources, I expected a masterpiece. After Thyestes, I expected a masterpiece. The Wild Duck is a competently executed production, it is good, but I believe it isn’t even very good. Its underpinning dramaturgical logic is questionable, it talks down to the audience, it has nothing to say about Ibsen’s original, and whether it succeeds in its intended effect largely relies on the audience not having any familiarity with the play.
I suspect there are two underlying reasons why I disliked The Wild Duck. Firstly, I have not seen much Melbourne mainstage work in 2011; hence, I am not used to its largely poor level of execution. The mainstage theatre I still see I hold to as high a standard as I can muster. Secondly, I re-read the play a few nights before seeing the work. I am pretty sure that did not make me Stone’s intended audience. I did it strategically, however: I wanted to see an interpretation, not a play. since The Wild Duck has been billed as an interpretation, as done after Ibsen, I didn’t want to be distracted by the plot. This is not only a perfectly legitimate way of viewing theatre, it is also the one that is in order when we watch classics informedly.
Simon Stone, and in fact many Australian theatre directors, often explains his position within theatre as a sort of evangelist, a priest of classical prophets. He has read and found these plays, and he would love to bring them to the general public, is how he often speaks in interviews and program notes. He will do what it takes to bring them closer to the average man, because he wants to convey the beauty of the classics. But Stone appears to understand these works primarily as stories: not even moral or philosophical tales, but stories as in complex plots which, by compacting time and space, bring a story format to salient moral quandaries of their time.
However, that is not all that a classical play is.
A classical play is important because of its role in its time. Specificaly, Ibsen’s plays are important for many more reasons than pure story-telling. They are important because (in no particular order): Ibsen brought realism to theatre *, dramatising the Norwegian bourgeois class and its moral quandaries; he particularly focused on moral quandaries that were salient in his times, particularly the many questions of equality within families (wives, children) and that of truth, and how long-held lies and secrets corrupt both public and private organisations, families and the state likewise; because many of his moral quandaries were not at all discussed at the time, and his dramatisation were speech acts in their own right; because he was a great innovator of dramatic language, simplifying and liberating the stage from oppressive, long monologues and introducing chatter and conversational language to the stage.
* Placing the Chekhovian gun on the wall, I would like to remark here that Ibsen has been a long, unsurpassed grandfather influence to much too much British (and in one remove Australian) drama: condensing the great moral questions of our time to a two-hour dinner party sometimes appears to be the only structuring logic the average (not fine, however) Anglophone playwright has known since about the 1950s.
The British theatrical tradition, to which Australia is heir, holds dearly the belief that the text contains everything, and that the director’s role is to ‘honour the text’. But this really is not, and cannot, be the case: the theatre, as we know from Peter Brook, is a moment in space and time shared between the performer and the audience. A play is of its own space and time, but the performer and the audience are often from another. The moment of theatre, the original moment that made this play an important play, cannot be recreated ad infinitum until the end of time, at any corner of the globe. This is why interpretation is such an important part of what theatre is: every staging is an interpretation, a translation/betrayal of the text, which was always only a pretext, in order to re-create the moment of mitspiel or co-play of performer and audience by any means necessary: the theatrical moment that is the essence of theatre.
Like any translation, a theatrical interpretation ages and needs to constantly evolve: there is not a definitive interpretation of any play whatsoever. Patrice Pavis, the great father of contemporary European dramaturgical theory, perhaps puts it most eloquently in his book Theatre at the Crossroads of Culture:
For a long time criticism of the classics and interpretation of mise en scene have acted as if time had done no more than cover the text with layers of dust; in order to make the text respectable, it was enough to clean up and get rid of the deposits which history, layers of interpretation, and hermeneutic sediment had left on an essentially untouched text. This phantasmatic image of the classical text could develop not only into an attempt to reconstruct archeologically the historical conditions of performance, but also into a modernization of performance style (classics in modern dress, gadgets alluding anachronistically to contemporary life). In each case, ‘dusting’ the text entails an idealist assumption according to which correcting classical language is all one needs to do to reach the level of the dictional world and of the ideologemes reduced to an objet fixe, a mixture of ancient and modern times.
Pavis, the theorist of postmodernism, remarks that dramaturgs and directors have resisted this notion:
Alain Girault has noted that ‘the dusting operation implies an idealist philosophical notion of the permanence of man. “Dusting” is finally “dehistoricizing”, denying history (reducing it to surface reflection, to “dust”).’ Refusing to ‘dust off involves an assumption of historical displacement, shocking the audience with the consciousness of a formal separation which corresponds to a separation of distinct world views, Brecht notes that, after the mise en scene of Schiller’s Robbers, Piscator told him that ‘he had looked for what would make people remark on leaving the theatre that 150 years were no small matter.’
Or Antoine Vitez:
Either one leaves the dust and continues as before – the Comedie Francaise has been gathering layers of dust for a long time and masking the dust with a new layer of wax – or one can try something else. One can do more than simply remove the dust; one can alter the object itself. A vase that has been miraculously preserved can always be useful. A play is quite different. The object itself is fundamentally transformed, even if the text remains completely intact. We can no longer read it in the same way as those readers for whom it was written. What we read is a kind of memory; this consists of making distorted elements reappear to our present life – in fact, the correspondence between individual and social body.
What appears to be important in the reading of the classical text is the ability to historicize the dust, instead of ignoring it or covering it up. This practice is quite close to translation, which provides a version of the source text in the language of the new reader, who then has a choice: between a translation-adaptation that, in order to avoid slavishly copying the text to be translated, transposes the text into its new cultural context; and a more literal translation that, at the risk of a feeling of strangeness and idiomatic shortcomings, preserves something of the rhetoric and world view of the source language. Like translation, reading the classics is always accompanied by a loss of meaning, or rather by the destruction of whole facets of signification.
A classical text contains two kinds of ambiguity or indeterminacy: those programmed into the work, the kind that brings complexity to it, and those that arise out of the unforseeable modifications in the circumstances of reception: hints about class and status and morality that don’t work anymore, because we live in a different time. The first ought to be preserved, the second not so much. Finally, Pavis gives a simple rule of thumb to interpretation:
If the mise en scene can, in a new concretization of the text, suggest new zones of intederminacy, organize possible trajectories of meaning between them, the classical dramatic text may recapture the glow tarnished by the passage of time and by banal interpretations. This phenomenon of recycling grants the classical text a perennial life by founding this life, not on permanent and unchanging significance, but on change and adaptation.
I hope this has explained both the crucial role that interpretation plays in the theatre, and why I was so keen to see The Wild Duck as an interpretation of a text.
However, Stone brushes all of this aside, and reads Ibsen as the writer of great family potboilers. His admiration of Ibsen is ex tempore, so to speak: he sees in them the themes of our time, structured by Ibsen’s dramaturgical skill into crafty stories, that have a vitality and finesse of structure that is still current today, and only need to be rescued from their 19th-century language and setting, and lo and behold, we have a contemporary play. Dusting, in other words. Vigorous dusting.
But herein lies the problem: Stone’s interpretations of Ibsen (as well as of Chekov) works have been increasingly faithful to the point of literalness (and somewhat reminiscent of the works of Thomas Ostermeier at Berlin’s Schaubuehne). This approach culminates in The Wild Duck, which has had a more thorough dusting than any Stone production so far. The play has been modernised; specifically, Australianized.
Herein lies the first problem with this production: in order to achieve the contemporary-Australianization of The Wild Duck, Stone has simply re-written the entire thing. It has not been lovingly restored, not even just bleached of every reference to Europe and the 19th-century – it has become a contemporary Australian play following the same general story line.
From five acts, it has been condensed into less than 90 minutes. New scenes have been added, with no correlation to the original. Characters have changed significantly. A great deal of characterization relies on entirely contemporary-Australian circumstances: the character of Hedvig is the typical product of the Australian private school system, and her parents quite concerned about paying for it. That kind of thing. The only thing intact is the rough outline of the story itself.
Stone has always done that, every one of his productions was a thorough re-writing, but The Wild Duck shows the crucial influence of Chris Ryan, who first collaborated with Stone as a co-writer on Thyestes. Where Stone’s work simply streamlined the dialogue and modernised the language (in an almost imperceptible way), both Stone/Ryan adaptations feature entire new scenes, of a Tarantinoesque quality: not just modern but pop-cultural, not just moving the plot along more swiftly but replacing filler scenes with specifically Australian, vernacular, urban boy banter. But Thyestes was methodical: every scene of the play was replaced by a quiet moment before or after the actual event. This was a courageous decision, it asked the audience to work for the meaning, and trusted them to do so. The Wild Duck is less systematic: most of the scenes are there, but many (especially in the second half) are purely made up. Many of the new scenes are purely expositional, explaining things that remained unsaid in Ibsen’s work: the specifics of the Ekdahl family ruin, Gregers Werle’s love life, and a post scriptum to the play. These are Stone/Ryan flights of fancy, redundant, chief vehicles by which this Wild Duck distances itself from Ibsen, and, also, inelegant.
This tactic of modernization by re-writing is really quite brutal. It purges Ibsen of everything but plot. More than an update, it is recontextualised and thoroughly made-over to comply with contemporary sensibility. It is basically a remake, of the kind practiced by Hollywood. As a strategy, it is not at all subtle, and it simply cannot be called interpretation. Nothing has been left to interpret. No evidence has remained of any interaction between a director and a text. The director has not tackled the text from any angle, because he has not had to. He has literally written himself out of having to deal with someone else’s work. The potentially difficult, unruly, resistant text, a text requiring directorial work and patience and research, has been replaced with its own pliable, submissive clone. I have previously suggested that Stone’s problems with Baal stem out of this practice of not actually reading the dramatic text, but re-writing it to suit his directorial vision, and I think, based on The Wild Duck, that it was a correct observation.
To interpret a text by making your entirely own version of it is not automatic theatrical anathema; of course not. However, the second and chief problem with this Wild Duck is that it does not simply translate the text into a contemporary Australian play, it reduces the original by doing so. Every interpretation makes choices of focus, but each good one broadens or deepens or re-focuses our view, and enriches our experience of the original in some way. This one doesn’t: it does not broaden or deepen or strengthen Ibsen in any way. It doesn’t reduce the play simply in length, number of characters, lines of dialogue. It reduces it thematically, in scope. It makes The Wild Duck narrower and shallower.
Stone/Ryan simplify or altogether remove a great deal of Ibsen’s text and subtext: the sociological complexity (key force in all Ibsen’s work); almost everything to do with class and money. Characters are simplified, and with it their relationships: Gregers Werle’s blind belief that relationships must be based on honesty is excised, berieving of motivation the one character moving the plot. In Ibsen’s play, Hjalmar Ekdahl is a tragic anti-hero whose weakness of character only gradually becomes apparent: intellectual vanity, self-aggrandisement combined with self-pity, depressive tendencies. He is quite similar to April and Frank Wheeler from Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, people who need to be tragic, not small failures, if they cannot be great successes. Ibsen’s Gina Ekdahl treats her husband’s fury at her sort-of infidelity with an ironic, tongue-in-cheek deference, which is simply beautiful to read. Stone’s couple is largely undefined, fairly nondescript bar their Australianness. The allegorical comparison of Hjalmar’s beautiful melancholy to the defeatist behaviour of wild ducks is likewise lost.
Keith Gallasch has analysed the relationship of this dramatic text to Ibsen’s Duck in great detail already, in Real Time. I am not going to do the same work once over, so please read his analysis if you are not convinced by my short summary. I agree with Gallasch’s meticulously argued conclusion: the new play is thinner in concept, weaker. Ibsen wrote a play about the weakness of human character, about its inability to face the truth, and about the way we rely on telling ourselves lies about who we are in order to get through life. Stone and Ryan have written a play about divorce.
‘Remake’ is not the right word for this sort of appropriation, but it is closer and more correct than ‘interpretation’. Of interpretation, I saw very little. The play has been greatly simplified in order to match its time and place, and Simon Stone’s entire interpretive guiding logic seems to be modernization; making it relevant again (re-relevantisation?). Unfortunately, that is just not enough. No theatrical interpretation ever has tried to make its text anything other than relevant to its time and place: modernization cannot be the sole aim of an interpretation. That is very much confusing the bathwater for the baby.
And then, Stone achieves the modernization by removing a great deal of nuance and depth from Ibsen, most of its larger, philosophical undercurrent – effectively emphasising the melodrama. And he does it by adopting the easiest approach possible: total rewrite.
And finally the Chekhovian gun shoots: because Ibsen became the guiding spirit of so much contemporary English-language drama, with his era-unravelling dinner parties, this new text, by Stone and Ryan, becomes just another contemporary Australian play about how divorce damages children, not at all different in form from anything that might have been written afresh in 2011. Does it work? Well, people have enjoyed it across Sydney and Melbourne. It has the triple bonus of being an easily digestible contemporary play, of being well-written, funny and moving, and of somehow being a 19th-century classic at the same time, making one’s enjoyment of it vested with self-interest and perceived virtue. It shows us ourselves in full minute detail, and pulls us apart in a fine plot. This is why I prefaced this review by noting that there is nothing wrong with anyone enjoying this production: it is very consciously designed to be enjoyed, and it is skillfully executed to do so.
However, there is more to theatre than just craft. There is interpretive and artistic ethics. There is no method to this interpretation, no discernible philosophy, no systematic dramaturgical approach, nothing but the imperative of ‘making it relevant’. It makes us see ourselves in Ibsen, but at the expense of a great deal of complexity in Ibsen. It does not reveal anything new, hidden in Ibsen’s work. It does not find contemporary relevance in Ibsen – it finds Ibsen in a contemporary story. It says: Ibsen is like us. It does not say: we are like Ibsen. It does not make one understand Ibsen better.
(And I suspect it does not make one understand Australia better either, because, however well translated, it is still a story from another time and place. The plot is still gripping, but teenage suicides and bastard children, family secrets and loss of bourgeois face are not themes of our day and time.)
And as interpretation, it fails. I thought long and hard about the equivalent sort of move I could draw a parallel. It is not quite pastiche, and it is not parody either. It is a simplifying analogy, rather, driven by a certain kind of evangelical, popularising impulse (and here the second Chekhovian gun goes off!). It is this:
But it is also, in another way, this:
Both are valid things to do, but can you see my point? Neither image offers an interesting new interpretation of Christianity, even of the tradition of visual interpretation of Mary and baby Jesus, per se. To do that, we need to go at least to Leonardo da Vinci. Or Wim Delvoye.
None of this may be perceptible to a person unfamiliar with Ibsen’s Duck. They might simply enjoy the story, and their own enjoyment of it. Since there is a great dearth of well-made stories about contemporary Australia, The Wild Duck, like The Slap, provides a necessary mirror to our society, however distorting, however illusory. And it seems quite clear that this production has been designed with that kind of audience member in mind, just like those African, evangelical Jesuses.
However, a production that simplifies in order to get the audience on its side is a production that patronises its audience. To an informed audience member, it says nothing new, nor interesting, about Ibsen, Norway, or the world. In Pavisian terms, no new zones of indeterminacy have been suggested. The work has been overexplained, simplified, narrowed, betrayed beyond all requirements of translation.
It remains competently made theatre, and one that achieves what it sets to achieve: turn Ibsen’s Wild Duck into a contemporary Australian play. However, like with Thomas Ostermeier, I do not see any validity or value in this approach. In order to give it any more credit, I need to be convinced that Slapifying Ibsen is a worthwhile aim in the first place.