Although one wrote fairy tales, and the other realistic drama, Hans Christian Andersen (1805-75) and Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906), giants of 19th-century Scandinavian culture, are literary blood brothers. Andersen was born in Denmark and Ibsen in Norway but both wrote in Danish, the dramatist’s homeland having not yet grown its own tongue. And a strain of dark horror in their writing – Andersen’s Thumbelina, Ibsen’s Peer Gynt – reflects influence from the regional sagas of trolls and monsters.
The writers coincide again in newly opened plays that share a concern with the reliability of literary biography, and address the question of whether, in a culture that considers itself unshockable, it is still possible to make theatre dangerous. A problem with Ibsen, for instance, is that plays which were booed and banned when written, for their radical form and content, have become a safe outing for your primmest aunt, to see a knight or dame in a production full of hoop skirts and mutton whiskers.
In his new version of the domestic drama The Wild Duck, adapter-director Robert Icke expressly sets out to make the play as unsettling and unexpected as it was to Norwegians 134 years ago. Much of the 2018 audience will already be familiar with Ibsen’s plot: the marriage of Hjalmar (here, James) and Gina Ekdal is shaken by aftershocks from the bankruptcy of James’s father and an eye condition suffered by their young daughter Hedwig. The family will be slowly goaded into knowing by the fervour of their friend Gregers Werle, keen to expose the “life lie” that people sustain.
Icke’s calculated alienations include renaming the truth-teller Gregory Woods (played with chilly charisma by Kevin Harvey), staging much of the play with the auditorium fully lit, and using rehearsal stand-in props, with the title character initially represented by a handbag rather than an actual mallard. The actors, already amplified by head-mics in a rampant theatrical fashion that seems dubious in a small theatre, also have access to a hand-held microphone, which they use to undercut dialogue (“Untrue”) or deliver speeches about Ibsen’s life and writing.
Icke is sometimes too distrustful of the second-greatest playwright in history. When Gina tells her husband that she slept with another man “three times”, then picks up the mic and tells us “more than three”, two of the great strengths of theatre – subtext and actors’ ability to transmit ambiguity – are undermined.
Cumulatively, though, the director achieves the astonishing feat of using anti-realist devices but still unleashing the play’s full tragic realistic force in scenes such as the climax, where Lyndsey Marshal and Edward Hogg, as the strong and weak halves of the Ekdal marriage, and Clara Read as their daughter, gradually seeing more as her sight weakens, face the consequences of concealment. Though watching a famous play, we never know what is coming next, replicating in a modern context Ibsen’s original shock tactics of form and content.
The other twin peak of Scandi-lit is entertainingly played by Jim Broadbent in Martin McDonagh’s A Very Very Very Dark Matter, which suggests that Andersen was a psychopathic, racist philistine, whose stories were written for him by a one-legged Congolese pygmy he kept prisoner in a box in the attic. It is further suggested that the novels of Charles Dickens – here a foul-mouthed, philandering, uncultured thug – were ghosted for him by the near-identical sister of the Dane’s oppressed amanuensis.
McDonagh seems to have set out to repel any lovers of his Oscar-winning film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, while further inflaming those who have complained about gratuitous violence and alleged racism in plays such as the recent West End-revived The Lieutenant of Inishmore. He generally avoids giving interviews, apparently impatient with inquiries about where his dark and strange work “comes from”, and so this play can be seen as a take-down of literary criticism and biography, especially in theories of the “muse” and the creation of national literary treasures. Research has suggested deeply unpleasant aspects of both Andersen and Dickens, and, in making their feet of clay several sizes larger, McDonagh challenges literary hero-worship, while also giving his own critics even more of the bloodbaths and vicious invective to which they have objected.
The greatest pleasure, as ever, is the dialogue, with cracking one-liners aimed at German theatre directors and English princesses, and the creation of a pidgin idiom for Andersen’s (historically documented) visit to Dickens. Performance pleasures include Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles’s astonishing stage debut as the tiny ghostwriter and a recorded growled narration by Tom Waits.
Some people walked out, as they had from The Wild Duck, but McDonagh and Icke should take that as a compliment to theatre’s enduring power to disturb.
The Wild Duck
Henrik Ibsen/Robert Icke
Almeida, London N1
A Very Very Very Dark Matter
The Bridge, London SE1
This article appears in the 31 Oct 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Great War’s long shadow