Saluting Henrik Ibsen  
- Padma Jayaraj, Thrissur  
February 20, 2007 

Rengachetana, a theatre group based in the cultural capital of Kerala, recently celebrated its Silver Jubilee by saluting Henrik Ibsen, an intellectual force that shaped modern Europe through his plays. The Wild Duck, premiered in Regional theatre, Thrissur is a befitting tribute to the master in the year of his death centenary. The Wild Duck, often considered Ibsen's greatest work proved a treat in many ways. 
Beyond time and clime, The Wild Duck has universal appeal. The play explores the world of the Ekdals, a family whose peaceful existence is fragmented and destroyed in the name of "truth." It is both disturbing and challenging.  
The drama holds layers of meanings. Besides its poetic and symbolic appeal, the theme is realistic. It highlights the true nature of the institution of marriage, the dilemma of humans caught between nature and culture, and the havoc wrought by too much idealism in solving existential crises. Love is highlighted as the fundamental basis of human relations. It is love that should be the be all and end all of life or else tragic loss of innocence is inevitable. Even when a Norwegian play with its original setting is transplanted onto a stage in Kerala, the powerful theme makes the spectators feel at home.  
We are introduced into the modest but happy life led by the Ekdal family. The living room, part of which is a studio, photographs, books and a toy-duck, set the foreground. From the background comes the sound of wild nature, the fauna of Norwegian forests, integral to the lives of the Ekdals. Mr. and Mrs. Ekdal is a contented couple leading a simple life with their only daughter Hedvig and old Mr. Ekdal, a ruined former army officer. Flooding light, sound of music and dance, point to their overwhelming happiness.  
Into this happy world enters Gregers Werle, an old school friend of Hjalmer Ekdal. He is the estranged son of the wealthy industrialist, Werle who has destroyed the Ekdal family. Gregers is a hopeless idealist bent on his mission of "The demand of the Ideal." His life had taught him that a home is built on a lie, that a sweet home is built in a swamp of deceit, that a happy home is a delusion. For him, "the foundation of marriage should be a real companionship founded on truth, purged of falsehood." He who knew the past of his father, puts two and two together. Off the stage, during a walk he is ruthless enough to tell his old friend that in reality senior Werle supports the Ekdals. For, he was responsible for sending the army officer to jail. In fact Hedvig, whom Hjalmer Ekdal considers his daughter, is senior Werle's illegitimate child. The blindness that threatens the girl is a family inheritance.  
A frustrated Hjalmer confronts his wife, Gina. She challenges him with another reality. The rich hounding the poor is the norm in this world; men seducing women, a common feature. Yet life can be lived happily in spite of human flaws. A child is part of a home who should be allowed to live in peace. Hjalmer is too distraught to listen to practical wisdom: that ordinary mortals need to live their lives, that happiness is needed even if it comes from delusions, that make-believe has been the stimulating principle of existence. Meanwhile to redeem a sinful past, senior Werle sends a letter announcing his decision to bequeath a handsome sum for the comfort of old Ekdal and his granddaughter who is turning blind. Hjalmer, going through the ups and downs of emotional trauma, rejects the offer as bribe.  
Hedvig, unable to cope with the loss of her father's love, succumbs to the solution suggested by the beastly idealist, Gregers Werle. He persuades her to sacrifice the duck, her most precious possession, to prove her love for her father. Hedvig enters the garret to shoot the duck but ends by killing herself. Wisdom dawns late for the men. The domestic drama comes to a tragic waste with the sacrifice of an innocent girl.  
The wild duck, as the title suggests is central to the play with a heavy load of symbolism. The symbolism comes alive in different ways. On the stage underneath the table, a toy duck is seen. When the story of the wild duck is narrated, it sounds like a folklore giving a poetic dimension to the play. How the Ekdals came to posses it and love it is central to the symbolic level of the drama. Old Ekdal figures as the wild duck in having been betrayed by his partner, senior Werle. Like the wounded duck, he has sunk into his reveries never to return. Dramatic techniques used point how Mrs. Gina Ekdal is still limping as if she could never be cured from the fatal hunt. Gregers tells Hjalmer that he is like the wild duck in his entrapment in the "poisonous marshes" of his household. Lastly both Gregers and Hedvig, one legitimate, the other illegitimate, children of Werle too are wild ducks, lonely and alienated carrying the burden of secret crimes.  

The wild duck continues to live, is very significant at the symbolic level. Hjalmar wants to kill it; Hedvig tries, but kills herself instead. Like the wild duck she loses her family and place of origin. Do we carry the wild duck in our psyche...?  
Incorporating elements from puppetry, the director has cut the play to half its original length. It is a masterstroke by the veteran Vayala Vasudevan Pillai whose experimental ingenuity caters to the fast-paced modern times. Although based on E M Kovoor's Malayalam translation of The Wild Duck, Vayala has given in his version, shades of interpretations adding to its original symbolism. Kattutharavukal in Malayalam, with its plural suffix suggests the bleeding wound that each human being carries within as a result of consequences created by mistakes wilful or otherwise in life. The Indian philosophical theory of Karma can be read into the play. Stylised movements, stage settings, light and music are tools in the hands of the director to reveal the poetic and the symbolic nature of the production. Indeed the drama goes beyond the text to showcase the dimension of life-situations in our globalised world. How private lives of ordinary citizens are destroyed by the ruthlessness of power and money emerges to point a larger reality.   

Light (Jose Koshi) and music (Satyajit) have added to the charm and power of the production. The beginning itself is an arresting visual. From the darkness emerges an optical drama accompanied by stormy winds on a wild terrain. A phantom, bathed in red light, moves in stylised steps towards the centre. Twisting strings in its hands, it stands in the middle of an oval, and arrows flicker from its circumference. Amidst suggested violence, the prologue presents a blind man, to the point of utter nakedness, pulling strings so that people on the stage move like automatons. Mime, gesture and movement weaving a seamless tapestry in orchestrated luminosity against soul-stirring mourning, projects a visual metaphor. These distorted forms controlled by hidden strings constitute the characters of the play. Loud lamentations, powerfully evocative, underscore their misery. We sense the tone and tenor of the show.  
The blind man gives dark glasses to the innocent girl, a telltale gesture: the continuity of the darkness of the present into future. The naked reality of the powers that be has political overtones. A microcosm thus reflects a macrocosm giving different dimensions and deeper meanings. The exposition has a touch of magical realism.  
The stage is a spatial metaphor. Part of the living room, is Hjalmar's studio. The staircase leading to the attic, through which moonlight and sunlight flows alternating with darkness suggest an enigmatic fantasy space up in the balcony - the wild duck's domain. Its quack-quack is louder than the sounds of other birds, animals, and even humans. This is the world where the household's shipwrecked man, Old Ekdal lives hunting. Mythical times cast its mystique.  
The director, Vayala Vasudevan Pillai is a known figure in the academic circles. The former Principal of the School of Drama, Thrissur has many experimental plays to his credit. Here too he takes liberties with the text, perhaps to make the drama short and more concentrated. The final death scene is highly symbolic and poetic. Instead of the dead body of the girl, her bloodstained garment, kneeling posture of all the characters, music and lights emphasise the ceremony of a ritual drama, the burial of innocence. The poetic justice wrought through generations is embedded in our Karmic theory of cause and effect. From the tragic death of innocence, phoenix-like rises the spirit of innocence to avenge the wrongs committed against humanity. The music of resurrection is a note of hope that takes the finale to a sublime level. The stylised dance in ethereal lighting gives a mystic dimension that rounds off the exposition both in content and dramatic technique. A western play becomes a human drama that points to the vision of the director.  
Yet the play is not devoid of shortcomings. Reducing a 3 hour-long, full-length play to 1 hour 20 minutes is a challenge. Besides introducing the technique of puppetry, the director eliminates major characters like senior Werle and Mrs. Sorby and Relling. He makes use of dialogue with minor characters, off-stage and drastically cuts discourses. In the process vagueness intrudes at certain points. Tight editing would have helped in fine-tuning. The heavy symbolism, though highly poetic, need not appeal to lay audiences.  
Old Ekdal (Habeeb Khan) and Gina (Sreeja K V) stand out as performers. The technique is innovative for an experimental try. Music is superb and lights add to the power of the drama. The director succeeds to a great extant in making a period piece universal with its poetry, naturalism and symbolism. 

Padma Jayaraj is a freelance journalist. She covers fine arts and travel for The Hindu, and is a regular contributor to