Simon Stone’s glass-encased production of The Wild Duck is a showcase for two of our finest actors

Simon Stone’s Belvoir Street production of The Wild Duck (often a trickier play than it looks) comes to Melbourne’s Malthouse with its reputation rampant before it. It has two of our leading actors, Ewen Leslie and Toby Schmitz, in the star roles of Hjalmar and Gregers and it’s a testament to the imagination which the young trailblazer Simon Stone can bring to naturalism when he stoops to conquer it. Ibsen’s masterpiece has been subject to elaborate modernisation, to cuts and rewrites by Simon Stone and Chris Ryan, though it is the force of his dramatic structure and his nightmare metamorphosis of characterisation that give this play its power so that the suggestion of authorship on the adaptor’s part borders on pretension. But this production, enclosed in a huge, two-edged glass box and visibly miked, is an extraordinary feat of overheard naturalism with acting that is superb within the confines of the director’s conception and with a riveting dramatic compulsion that engrosses the audience’s sense of unfolding emotional realities even as it plays with them.

Which leaves the question of whether Ibsen has been ruined or transfigured by Simon Stone’s interpretation and this portentously signed version by Stone and Ryan. The first thing to say is that everything that is powerful about this production (and much of it is) derives in the first instance from Ibsen. The Norwegian dramatist who transformed 19th-century drama single-handed had a knack for seeing how archetypal and apparently melodramatic material could be made to glow as a form of cloaked poetic drama if the surface of the dialogue was naturalistic enough not to have too heavy a rhetorical emphasis. At the same time he remained, despite his world of topcoats and bustles, the same man who had written the poetic Peer Gynt with its everyman’s endurance down the ladder of the ages, its troll kings and button-moulders and blank wastes of ice. Or Brand, another early play as intrinsically poetic as anything by Shakespeare which at the same time seems to look forward to the films of Ingmar Bergman.

Simon Stone does Ibsen brilliantly but he cuts him down to his own size, or rather to the size of his misapprehension of his naturalism. He presents The Wild Duck (his Wild Duck as he rather chest-thumpingly declares) within the confines of his epical glass box, almost as if he is defying the TV-brained audience to misunderstand that naturalism is not possible without artifice.

And so this dark saga of adultery and mistaken fatherhood, of the headlong abyss that opens when the fruit of the loins seems a doom, unfolds within the monumental confines of Ralph Myers’ giant unadorned fish bowl of sharp edges, an elegant and flexible metaphor for transparency and confinement. We hear every breath, electronically captured, watch every droplet of sweat, through glass. If we are sitting at the front the actors are inches away from us, hyper-real, frighteningly real. The duck too is real and poignant, the talk of its killing is awful. And at the same time this real life creature that moves and shits and touches with its sweetness, is behind the screen and within it.

Simon Stone intends a post-Brechtian approach to the sound and fury of Ibsen’s agonies. This script flattens out Ibsen’s apparent banalities with a lot of congruent contemporary equivalences that are nonetheless a bit closer to a young person’s (maybe an actor’s) sense of attitude.

And this in turn governs both the acting style of all but overheard naturalism and its glassy containment within the confines of a considered, if flexible, alienation technique.

Ewen Leslie as Hjalmar, the father who comes to feel like nothing on earth, and Toby Schmitz as Gregers, his long-lost mate who comes out with his revelations, both act brilliantly within the parameters of a style that is designed to fit them like a glove, not least because it is made out of their own skin.

In the case of Toby Schmitz’s Gregers (where the part itself is more truncated in the Stone/Ryan version), this can be mistaken for a kind of one-note intensity, though it has at the same time a breathtaking reality, as if the character were squirming inside his jeans as he improvises his perdition and those of his friends. Ewen Leslie has the richer, more free-falling role as Hjalmar loses his moorings, but he also has a scrabbling, tumbling lead-up of physical warmth and familial silliness that is superbly realised. Perhaps inevitably he is a touch less moving than he might be as his world slides towards the annihilation of true perspectives.

These two performances are the pivot of this weighty and unforgettable truncation of The Wild Duck, and the pas de deux between these boysy actors has a touch of wonder to it. Ewen Leslie should really play Othello to Toby Schmitz’s Iago.

It’s Leslie, though, who gets to mine the rich vein of an early middle age always within shouting distance of desolation. It is as fine a performance as the sharper edge of the Australian theatre could yield: finer in its detail, in its command of technique and its defiance of technique, than his Richard III or his Hamlet.

The rest of the ensemble is very accomplished, though not quite at this level. Anita Hegh has an easy credibility as Gina and a shuddering rendition of shock but the performance with its easy, tempered naturalism is smoother than the desolations it bespeaks. Eloise Mignon captures all the self-consciousness of the young girl Hedvig and then adds a bit of her own — she’s more alienating and more armoured against sentimentalism than anybody, perhaps to her detriment.

John Gaden as Werle, the old capitalist satyr is seamless and urbane in his familiar manner (as if he were allowed to step outside the glass box), his style at variance with everything else in Stone’s production. Anthony Phelan as Ekdal on the other hand has a sweep and a dumb wondering puzzlement that seems to comprehend its confines and remain traditional and Ibsen-like as well.

Simon Stone’s is a spectacularly successful production on its own terms which are not quite those of the dramatist who dwarfs the late 19th century and awed people as different as Shaw and Joyce. It reduces him to a streetwise, slightly juvenile Australian pocketful of emotions. It has a bit less than it should of the sweeping fury of feeling, the operatic mastery of the music of everyday life, orchestrated to equal Shakespeare. Simon Stone leads up to the crisis magnificently — his idiom and exposition as footsure as it is contemporary — but then he flinches away from full catharsis, almost as if the whole mess of emotion were too embarrassing.

That’s one way of using alienation, to temper the risk of excess. But Simon Stone will be a greater director when he gets out of his box. In the mean time there is no finer example of the progressive in Australian theatre than this production of The Wild Duck.