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24 October 2018

The Wild Duck is a lie

Ibsen and #MeToo: Robert Icke's rewriting of the classic tragedy suggests a way to reckon with the art of monstrous men.

By Helen Lewis

“Are we to go back throughout history now and anyone who has misbehaved in any way, or has broken the law, or has committed some kind of offence, are they always going to be cut out?”
— Judi Dench on Kevin Spacey

“Anyway, it’s all lies.”
— Gregory, The Wild Duck

There is a sentence near the start of Robert Icke’s version of The Wild Duck that is both a factual statement and a provocation. Speaking directly to the audience through a handheld microphone, the actor playing Gregory — who is about to destroy a whole family in his demented quest for “honesty” — tells us that this is a “true story”. Henrik Ibsen wrote The Wild Duck in 1884, the actor-Gregory says, when he was 56. He had a sister called Hedwig. His father was declared bankrupt. He fathered an illegitimate child. All of these biographical facts have echoes in The Wild Duck. Its plot is this: a man whose father was declared bankrupt begins to suspect that his daughter Hedwig is, in truth, the illegitimate child of another man.

Nestled among the recital is this observation, of Ibsen: “He was a white man.”

If an alien came to earth and its first stop was a British theatre, then — well, the odds are we’d probably all be killed in a cleansing fire. But if it happened to alight on the Almeida, how would you explain the clenched fist poised within that sentence? It is so far from being a neutral description. It means: powerful. It means: default. It means: a member of the class which has traditionally defined reality. And now, to progressive theatre audiences, the kind who loved the Almeida’s overtly feminist play The Writer, it means some or all of the following things: over-represented, boring, staid, blinkered, narrow. 

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It’s 2018, for god’s sake. What does a white man — worse, a Norwegian who is “dead now” — have to say about anything?

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It’s been a year since the Me Too hashtag detonated, showering the internet in grimly repressed memories and new grievances. The last 12 months, I find myself hoping, was the first phase. The consciousness-raising. From a greater awareness of injustice, we can build new structures. In theatre, changes are already apparent: the Royal Court’s code of conduct, the Old Vic’s Guardians scheme, the unlikelihood of Kevin Spacey gracing a charity gala any time soon.

The new season’s must-have accessory is a female playwright, or a female director, or preferably a couple of each. The canon is being scoured for any of the few women’s plays which received a professional production before the late twentieth century: Rutherford and Son in the new National Theatre season follows Machinal in the last Almeida one. Someone out there might be thinking of reviving Marie Stopes’s play, Our Ostriches. I implore you: do not do this.

It’s a strange moment when the structural response has happened more quickly than the artistic one. (I’m excluding Kevin Spacey being cauterised from the final series of House of Cards, and recast in All The Money in the World, because those feel more like commercial decisions than a principled moral stand.) But plays take time; movies even longer. At Edinburgh this year, I began to see the first shows in which the phrase “in the #MeToo era” would dominate the reviews. It’s True, It’s True, It’s True, about the rape of the painter Artemisia Gentileschi, is an obvious example; it’s about to transfer to the New Diorama in London. At the Donmar, there is currently a production of Measure to Measure, the most #MeToo Shakespeare there is. (“Who will believe thee, Isabel?”) 

As I said on Front Row on 15 October, I hope that this cultural moment provokes more art, from more viewpoints: not a razing of the canon but a reappraisal and a rejuvenation. I’m happy that David Mamet’s Oleanna and Philip Roth’s The Human Stain and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible exist, but I also want to see art where the fundamental question is not over the truth of the accusation, but of the response to it. “Did it happen” is not the only conflict out there.


One of my favourite essays from the #MeToo era is by Claire Dederer, in the Paris Review. “What do we do with the art of monstrous men?” she asks. “ Can I love the art but hate the artist? Can you? When I say we, I mean I. I mean you.” Dederer draws a distinction which I have found increasingly important and increasingly uncomfortable. There is art where the monstrosity of its creator is incidental; although this is perhaps rarer than it appears. And there is art which is an implicit endorsement of a particular worldview. Watch Manhattan again, Dederer suggests, and notice how its lead character is dating a 17-year-old, and the film considers that to be worthy of no comment at all. “Woody Allen’s character Isaac is fucking that high schooler with what my mother would call a hey-nonny-nonny,” she writes.

Or look at the art of Paul Gauguin, depicting teenage Tahitian girls dressed in “exotic” fabrics he had imported from France. His unspoiled Tahiti existed primarily in his imagination. We are looking at an artistic manifesto — his own sexual tastes, blended with what he wanted to be true, and what he wanted others to think was true. 

This is why I have no time for the kind of criticism that gets up on its hind legs about how people are now “politicising art” or “ramming their agenda down our throats”. My dude, the canon is already full of politics. It’s just that when those politics align with the existing grain of society, they lie flat against it, snug and barely visible. 

Paul Gaugin’s “Spirit of the Dead Watching”. Photo: Getty


My favourite idea in Ibsen’s original version of The Wild Duck is the “life-lie”. These are the stories we tell ourselves to make our existence bearable, and it is their destruction which leads to the play’s tragic ending. For Hjalmar (James in the Almeida production), his life-lie is his mysterious “invention”, whatever it is that he’s working on which means he can’t knuckle down to running a business or doing the boring bits of childcare. 

There’s a question over where James thinks the money is coming from to fund his family’s upkeep: does he really think his photography business is profitable enough to sustain them all? Why does he think his father has been creeping around the estate of Charles Woods, the former business partner who supposedly screwed him over? James either lies to himself, or makes every effort not to find out the truth — until the catastrophic moment his old friend Gregory turns up after 15 years away and encourages him to question his wife’s fidelity, his daughter’s paternity and the true financial state of his family.

But everyone in this world is a liar. Gina lets the implication stand that Charles Woods coerced her into sex, when their later conversation  — not in the original Ibsen — reveals it was consensual; she doesn’t want to feel like an adulterer, and she refuses to let herself wonder if she should have picked Charles over man-child James. Gregory Woods tells himself that wants his friend to know the truth about his wife, when he’s really seeking revenge on his father by turning James against him. A personal vendetta is reframed as moral righteousness. (I bet he’s a big fan of Twitter.) James’s daughter Hedwig and his father Francis create a whole make-believe world in the attic, with ragged old Christmas trees standing in for the forests which are disappearing outside. 

Robert Icke’s staging, though, suggests Ibsen was the most successful liar of them all. (Full disclosure: I read and commented on a rehearsal draft of the script.) In The Wild Duck, Charles Woods is a benevolent bankroller of Francis, James, and by extension, Gina and Hedwig. Charles, as the father of an illegitimate child, is thoughtful and generous: he wants to endow Hedwig with enough money to see her comfortably to adulthood.

Ibsen, in the same situation, did not. As the actor-Gregory tells us direct into the microphone, he paid the minimum enforceable by law, then never saw the child or its mother again. Robert Ferguson’s 1996 biography noted that Ibsen was nearly sentenced to hard labour for failing to keep up with the payments. “I cannot with any certainty deny the charge that I am the father,” he wrote, “since I have unfortunately had intercourse with her, encouraged as I was by her flirtatious ways.” (David Edgar’s LRB review notes that “her response, reported somewhat later in life, was: ‘Well, you know, that Henrik, it wasn’t easy to stop him.’” The woman was a maid.)

And so the original Wild Duck also feels uncomfortably like a manifesto — advancing the idea of the benevolent old white patriarch, the bedrock of society, when its creator fell short of that ideal. Patriarchy is our collective life-lie, making life more pleasant for the patriarchs; look, this is just the natural order of things, and it works. Charles Woods doesn’t need the law to force him to pay, or take an interest.

Imagine being the woman Ibsen impregnated and abandoned, watching The Wild Duck. Imagine being the child. Imagine watching the authorial stand-in Charles lord it over everyone on stage, kindly and paternalistic, while the real version didn’t care if you starved. As the actor playing Gregory, railing against patriarchy in general and his father in particular, spits later into the microphone: “The Wild Duck is a LIE.”

This version of The Wild Duck made me feel that story-telling can be a form of violence. Stories exert force. Gregory tells us his shoes are “jet black”; we can see they are brown. Stories provide well-trodden paths; it’s easy for our thoughts to walk down them. They create archetypes — the precocious temptress, the nervy but lovable Jewish comedian, the difficult director who “pushes actors to the limit”, the loving father who “suddenly snaps”, the untrustworthy addict, the “tart with a heart” — and the temptation is to stretch out and distort the complexity of real people to fit those stock images. These archetypes suit some groups far more than others. (Just ask any Asian actor, tired of going to auditions to play a terrorist or a Muslim son coming out as gay.) At a national level, stories create myths: without World War Two, would we have Brexit? Stories tell us who we are. 

It’s not coincidence that for the majority of our history, our storytellers have been white men.


One of the strands, then, of this version of The Wild Duck feels like a challenge to artists: how responsibly are you using the dangerous power you have been given? Stories don’t just twist the truth; they smooth it, turning an untidy skein into a single, unbroken thread. Even this rewriting of The Wild Duck does it. Ibsen paid for his child until the “end of its thirteenth year”, we are told. Hedwig, the echo of that child in the play, is about to have her thirteenth birthday. Did you notice the sleight of hand? Ibsen paid for his child until the age of fourteen. This Hedwig starts off at twelve. And yet the play hovers around that unlucky number, 13, instead. That small smudge makes the echo much more resonant. 

Stories have gravity; they demand that the truth bends towards them. Stories are neat. Lies are neat. Life is not.


The other question we should ask of any story is: whose story? After I saw Robert Icke’s last play, Oedipus, in Amsterdam earlier this year, my heart belonged to the fact it was just as interested in Jocasta as the title character. The original Greek tragedy is misogynist in the way that really matters in art: it has no interest in women, treating them not even as supporting characters; more like moving scenery. 

At the end of the Greek poem, Jocasta hangs herself off-stage, triggering Oedipus to blind himself. There is no interest in her motivation or any conflict she experiences about her actions. Yet she is not just mother to Oedipus, but to their children Polyneices, Eteocles and Antigone. She doesn’t know what her husband, or Thebes, has in store for the three of them. This is an Ancient Greek tragedy: Oedipus might kill them. They might kill themselves. They might (as the boys do) kill each other. For a mother to abandon her children to any of that is a horrific decision to make. It should highlight how unbearable she feels it would be to stay alive. 

But the original text doesn’t care, at least not enough to dramatise that choice. I’m off, here’s a leaflet on guide dogs, I’ve left some dinner in the oven. Icke’s Oedipus does: we learn that Jocasta was groomed by the old tyrant (here a political leader rather than a king), who raped her while she was still legally a child, and stole away her own baby. She worked hard to put his control and cruelty behind her as an adult, after he died in a car crash at the crossroads. She is happy with Oedipus in the way that people who have had to fight for happiness are happy. And then the awful discovery comes as the time on the clock runs out. Before she goes to the bathroom and shoots herself, she tells her husband/son: “I can’t lose you twice.”

This is how much feminism I want in my art, no more and no less: to find women’s lives as interesting as men’s. To see them as people. 

Gina Ekdal. Photo: Manuel Harlan


That poor duck. It gets its name in the title, but in metaphorical terms, it takes second billing to the photographs. As Susan Sontag wrote in 1977, photography has become a way of refusing experience – we can record a moment instead of living in it, turning it into “an image, a souvenir”. Social media does this too. There’s a sense of drowning not just in everyone else’s furious certainties, but their frantic constructions of themselves. I looked back recently at my Instagram feed from a time when I was ill — anxious and burned out in a way that felt like being skinless. And it was all toothless smiles and artfully caught moments of achievement. Social media companies have made millions of dollars by digitising our life-lies. 

What does a dead white man have to say in 2018? This, among other things. Icke’s Wild Duck feels far less like a play about injury and sacrifice than the gulf between appearance and reality. The metaphor creeps into the staging in every conceivable way. The microphone interjections provide alienating distance from the original text, suggesting that Ibsen wove his own life-lie throughout his play. The house lights start fully up, removing the familiar (and comforting) barrier between audience and actors. Francis Ekdal wanders onstage at his first appearance, drunk and disoriented, asking if it’s started yet  –  whether he means Charles Woods’s fancy dinner or the performance is ambiguous. This production is, in Terry Pratchett’s phrase, clearly a “made thing”. You are encouraged to notice the fingerprints in the clay, which is its own kind of honesty. Yet the tragedy of Hedwig’s sacrifice is still indisputably the bloodied heart of it, bursting free of the clever-clever framing. (Wear waterproof mascara, is what I’m saying.) 


Ibsen told his life-life not just as a “white man”, a full citizen when others were not (women could not vote in Norway at the time The Wild Duck was written). He did it as the country’s national playwright. Every straightforward performance since then has endorsed his life-lie. How many people know the story of his child? How many Ibsen scholars even know the boy’s name? It’s a footnote to his illustrious life, at best. Whereas his choices, his lack of financial support and refusal to take responsibility, must have defined that woman’s whole existence. 

“Cutting him out” of the canon, to use Judi Dench’s phrase, feels inappropriate; it is a bitter irony that Ibsen generally writes women well, particularly for a man of his period. Equally, endorsing his power to shape reality, to excuse himself, feels . . . gross. This isn’t a case where biography is incidental to the art; it feels more comparable to Gauguin’s paintings. Biography becomes argument, and I wouldn’t hang a Gauguin print in my hallway. I’ll watch Annie Hall again, but it’s no longer on my list of “guilty pleasures”. Burning down the house seems over the top. But still, what do we do with art that is not just made by bastards, but acts as a manifesto for bastardry?

This production of The Wild Duck feels like the most compelling attempt yet to grapple with that question. Show the art; show the problem. Don’t excise the darkness from the canon, don’t cover it up; illuminate it, engage with it. Every time I’ve been asked to talk about the cultural response to #MeToo in the last few weeks, I’ve thought about this version of this play. 

But . . . that’s not allowed, is it? No one wants the most interesting artistic exploration of 2018’s feminist awakening to come from “a white man”. Worse, a white man rewriting another white man (a dead one, too). It’s not allowed, somehow. It should have been a woman. Not least when so few women see their plays staged. It feels unjust. 


So much for the artists. What about the critics? We do exactly the same thing: imposing our stories on complicated reality. I’m a minnow, relatively, writing long essays for a specialist magazine; but as a woman and a feminist critic, I still have the authority to declare a show “sexist” (less so racist, transphobic or homophobic, although I could certainly create a cloud of suspicion that would demand to be acknowledged). Gavel banged. Take him down. 

There’s a fashion now for posing as an underdog — all the moral high-ground, none of the responsibility — but critics have power, too, particularly in a world as small and self-obsessed as theatre. We can shape the story of a play which has been worked on by dozens of people, by applying a brutal label to it or its creator, with no prospect of appeal. (Imagine the response if a male playwright or director tried to contest my judgement that a work was sexist? Tap-dancing through a minefield would be less fraught.) This guy “can’t write women”. This director “uses gay stereotypes”. A stupid character who happens to be black or Asian is clearly a calculated insult to an entire community. 

Again, it’s biography as argument. You can’t argue with a woman about sexism. (OK, my entire online experience suggests you can, but still. Even people who do this constantly would probably sign up to the principle.) It can feel as though facts now only exist in relation to the speaker, and the speaker’s identity, flashed like an entry card to the public debate. 

This makes me uneasy — I want to be taken seriously on feminism because I’ve done the reading, not because I happened to be born with a vagina. And then I think about how partisan the application of these labels is — Jeremy Corbyn cannot have a blind spot on anti-semitism, because he’s a Good Guy. I think of the infinite good faith we extend to people on “our side”, and the harsh rules we apply to the others. But then how hard it is to untangle experience and authority: how many well-thumbed feminist books equals one day of being cat-called and talked over in meetings? I want biography to be part of the conversation, but it cannot be the start and end of it. 

“He was a white man.” That matters, and it doesn’t matter. One day, I hope, it will matter even less, when being a white man is just one flavour of humanity among equals, and there are as many plays by women and minorities on stage as you can eat. And when there is as much art from the perspective of rape survivors, from the sexually harassed, from abandoned children, as there is from rapists and harassers and men who never had to take responsibility for their actions. When the ownership of stories is democratic. When Twitter has been burned to the ground, probably, and its fields sowed with salt. 

Then, it won’t matter so much that it’s all lies.


The Wild Duck is at the Almeida theatre, London, until 1 December.