Last Septembers: Ibsen in Lisbon

In the introduction to her collection of essays On Photography, Susan Sontag wrote that photographs “are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing.” Like the photographer, the theatre director must task themselves with bringing us round to a certain “ethics of seeing”: a slice of dramatic life as they know it. They are translators, first and foremost, of a visual agenda. And where better to begin than in the setting of a photographer’s studio, for the enactment of this dramatic vision?

The vision came into focus over a ten year period, after Tiago Guedes’ first encounter with Ibsen’s 1884 work, The Wild Duck. A conversation with an actor-friend provided the initial spark of inspiration, echoing down the decade in his memory, until the current artistic director of Lisbon’s National Theatre Dona Maria II commissioned Guedes with the challenge of staging this classic tragicomedy, ready for its month-long run in the early autumn of 2016.

 Vildanden,as it is known in the original Dano-Norwegian versions, is a work which lends itself well to the process of revision and adaptation demanded by such an undertaking. Ibsen’s text is underscored with a vital capacity which surpasses the social contours of its fabric, sharing the same breath of life that is written into the script of a Shakespearean tragedy. This is a play about vision itself, as seen through a director’s selective lens, and it is no accident that Guedes has chosen to emphasise the dynamic between Ibsen’s meditation on the transcendent power of truth and the necessarily surreal medium of photography. Indeed, this dynamic also concerns the wider endeavour of artistic works and their envisioned process:from the moment an edition is made of a work’s surviving manuscript,the game of versions begins, as editors and translators alike transmit the text beyond the reaches of its origins.This decentering effect calls for the setting of a new north on the literary compass; seeing a work with new eyes requires a projection beyond the tangible dilemmas of updating a text for the contemporary audience,or indeed linguistic translation for the international scene. Guedes’ version is fresh precisely in its staging of the more conceptual cues that Ibsen left behind.

Returning to the photographer’s studio, then, as the play’s visual focus, we watch the spatial expansion of a family conflict. Gregers’ arrival at the Ekdal household in Act Two disturbs beyond the inconvenience of a late-night intrusion, breaking up the domestic space and exposing the forced merriment of Ekdal and his wife. We are made aware of the mechanisms of performance- stilted deliveries and mannered gestures- which are set against the simple set. The advantage of the minimalist approach Guedes takes to scenery lies in the way it directs the audience’s attention towards the few props which have been singled out for contemplation. More weight is given to these objects  because of the silence and space which surrounds them.The effect of this decision highlights what lies beyond the immediate circumstances: the disjointed tableau of chairs, table and door frame point towards the surreal dimension of performance. A decluttered set represents a mode of extreme reality, shaped by the hand of artifice, in which objects are overshadowed by their own pending implications. In the surreal mode, they inhabit a plane of awareness that embodies the sham of selectivity and yet is more real than life, in its stark display of the material world. The surreal can be more real than the real,just as comedy can be more tragic than tragedy.

So, how to continue with the setting of this surreal style? In Guedes’ version, the backstage has been wheeled onstage; the entrance hall to the family home is a skeletal dressing room, replete with coat hangers for the characters to recast themselves with the aid of a vestimentary shorthand. These coat hangers signal an index of metatheatre in their own right: their beaky outlines nudge us towards the recognition of yet another visual echo of the play’s central symbol. To this end, the set operates at a kind of second-order level of meaning;an amplifier to capture the overall effect of the performance, as dialogue combines with gesture  to overstep the threshold of the metaphorical. Background becomes foreground,as staid furniture offsets the wry twinkle of polished glass.This is an upcycling of reality, viewed in real time.

 Reproduction betokens representation in this enactment of The Wild Duck, and faithful imitation must give way to refinement of perception in a process not dissimilar to the photographic enterprise. The many lies of life emerge as partial representations of an exploded truth, like a series of camera stills displayed in rotation. And how apt, too, that Hjalmar, the most misguided character, should concern himself with the development of photo proofs when his reality veers so far from the photographic ideal that Old Werle has fashioned for him. These proofs, visual minutiae in the bold cosmos of Ibsen, function once again as a testament to the equivocal status of truth in the play.

In this sense, they work as stand-ins for the lack of incriminating visual evidence in the revelation of the great lie: that Old Werle has provided Hjalmar with a wife and livelihood not out of universal kindness but merely to protect his own name. Yet we only hear echoes of this deception via the characters’ multiple narratives. “My father seems to have been almost a kind of providence for you,” remarks Gregers Werle to his childhood friend Hjalmar Ekdal, as we hear of how Hjalmar came to be a photographer and marry Gina Hansen, a former servant in the Werle household. The audience, too, remains blind to the visible spectrum of events as they happened. Instead, the cast must be held accountable for their delivery of the dramatic word.  

 But you have to be adept whilst handling such material. When the weight of a character’s inner world hangs on the gamble of a syllable, there is all to play for. From the moment speech escapes from an actor’s mouth, another betrayal has occurred, as the text is moved from page to stage. Guedes makes a lot of this heard dimension. In the eternal dice game of language, the spoken wrestles with the written and, absorbed into the magic of their own enactment, words lose their point of origin. Speech marks loosen their grip around each phrase, as we are no longer sure of any concrete centre from which they may have sprung.  The most dizzying derailment of the written text occurs in the final act: at the shot of a gun, the dramatic patchwork has been unravelled and, shed of their shallow novelty, we see the characters for who they really are.Perhaps the tragicomedy lies in the possibility that Gregers the moralist is no less of a quack than Hjalmar the idealist.

The vital lie at the heart of the action, a blindness that kids itself of its own stunning clarity,is thrown into relief, and yet without a trace of monochrome in the urgency of its delivery. A resonant reminder of this shortsightedness is one of Hjalmar Ekdal, poised at the table as if frozen in a camera still ,in silent contemplation of his genius breakthrough: the unrealised project that each of us dreams of and eternally puts off. An everyman procrastinator in a failed inventor’s disguise, he sits amidst a tale of exposure at all costs, with a disinherited daughter as its misplaced centrepiece.The claustrophobic implosion which prompts Nora to leave her doll’s house is transformed in this play into something broader and more expansive.There seems to be no final say on the moral ground at stake,and the image of the wild duck is elusive,called to mind only through indirect pointers, until its full exposition in the concluding catastrophe.

In a letter to Frederik Hegel, his publisher, Ibsen himself expressed his hopes for the small yet revolutionary impact that this play might have to offer: “I can believe that The Wild Duck can perhaps tempt some of our younger dramatists into new paths, and I would consider this to be desirable.” Guedes’ version takes the path of encouraging  its audience to appreciate the play in its fuller theatrical dimensions. As such,Guedes does not appear to be tempting us towards any single social, political or religious interpretation, and yet still reveals a professed faithfulness to the text. Perhaps Guedes’ production has a photographic kind of fidelity to the original; photographic insofar as it affirms the lies just as inherent to art as to life.



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