Illness as Metaphor I: The Wild Duck

The first in a series of posts considering the metaphorisation of illness in contemporary performances.

The Wild Duck at the Almeida, the Ekdal family: Lyndsey Marshal, Edward Hogg, Clara Read and Nicholas Farrell.  Photo credit Manuel Harlan

In 1978, Susan Sontag famously warned her readers of the dangers of treating illness as metaphor. Reflecting on the metaphorisation of tuberculosis in the nineteenth century and on her own experience of cancer and its related images and stigmas, she suggested that ‘it is hardly possible to take up one’s residence in the kingdom of the ill unprejudiced by the lurid metaphors with which it has been landscaped.’ Sontag’s own metaphor here, the landscaping of the kingdom of the ill, suggests that the metaphors surrounding illness shape our experiences of being ill, and that they are as inescapable as they are useless. ‘The most truthful way of regarding illness’, says Sontag, ‘is one purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking’.[1]

Illness, its metaphors, and questions of truth are at the core of Robert Icke’s adaptation of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck for the Almeida Theatre, London. The play begins with Kevin Harvey on stage, out of character. The house lights are still up. He asks the audience to turn off their phones. He reflects that our smartphones filter our approach to truth, our need for it and inability to find it. He suggests that whilst we can never know Ibsen’s ‘real’ The Wild Duck, (“it’s in Norwegian, actually in a form of Norwegian-Danish”), the truth of the story is what matters. ‘So’, he says, ‘this is the real Wild Duck.’

Throughout the first half of the play, Icke’s production plays heavily with metatheatrical tricks which remind the audience over and over again that they are in a theatre, and that this is indeed a story. Harvey switches in and out of character. He plays Gregory Woods, son of a successful businessman who has been absent for many years following a scandal in his father’s business, for which his father let his business partner Francis Ekdal take the fall. Gregory returns with a hatred for his father and an ideological obsession with ‘telling the truth’. He takes up residence with the now impoverished Ekdal family, who have converted their attic into a woodland so that Francis can still go hunting and tend to his granddaughter’s adopted wild duck.

The production’s dramaturgy and Gregory’s constant references to truth-telling seem to suggest that the exposure of theatre’s artifice makes for more honest theatrical practice. Icke highlights theatre’s theatricality in a bid to make it not necessarily more real but at least more true than the audience’s smart-phone mediated culture. (This is of course an argument that defenders of ‘high’ culture have been making one way or another for centuries, and one which relies on a certain Gregory-like reverence for an idealised concept of truth.) Gregory’s reverence for ‘the truth’ is slowly undermined throughout the play as it is revealed that the Ekdal’s are reliant on the illusions that they make for themselves, which might actually allow them to live fuller, ‘truer’ lives than he expected.

But the question of truth in Icke’s adaptation extends beyond theatre and illusion. It is haunted by another character and her illness. Gregory’s hatred for his father, we learn, is based on his mother’s deathbed testimony. And this mother, we are repeatedly told, was ‘mad’. Although this narrative does not take an important role in Icke’s adaptation, the mental illness of Gregory’s mother and by implication of Gregory himself roots the entire play in a heavy metaphorisation of mental illness. The somewhat overblown ideas of truth and reality in The Wild Duck find their counterpoint not in the fictional site of theatre, but in barely-mentioned language of mental illness.

This is the problem I had with this otherwise excellent adaptation. The performances in it are excellent and Icke’s direction with all its metatheatricality – whilst perhaps not to everyone’s taste – is as always masterful. But its over-thematization of truth relies on an unexamined equation of mental illness and lying (or fiction) which is uncritical. Even as we are invited to sympathise with Gregory’s revelations of ‘the facts’, and the Ekdal’s clinging to illusion the play presents a concrete nagging doubt: that Mrs Woods was mentally ill, and as such Gregory’s quest for truth is misdirected. And because this doubt remains persistent but unexplored, and it is not subject to the destabilisations of the dramaturgy.

Mental illness as the opposite of truth also finds itself at the centre of the play’s biggest metaphor: the role of the wild duck. When a wild duck is wounded, it swims to the bottom of the lake, bites down on some pond weed and holds itself down there until it drowns. The question of ‘who’ the wild duck is becomes the subject of the second half of the play, and in the end it seems the wild duck is a metaphor for everyone: Gregory clinging to his ideals despite the harm they are causing, Ekdal to his faith in Gregory’s father, Ekdal’s family to their illusions of happiness, the audience to their mediated culture. We are all drowning ourselves, the play seems to be saying, and we all need to let go and float back to the surface to see the truth.

Through the image of the wild duck and its explicit links to human suicide in this production the mental-illness-as-fiction metaphor is reinforced. The wild duck kills itself, literally burying its head in the sand (pond.) This metaphor bounces around the play without achieving any specificity, and I for one left the theatre feeling that Sontag really did have a point.

I would like to end by suggesting that we live in a moment in which refusing the metaphorisation of mental illness is not only important but urgent. A time when we have a minister for suicide prevention who refuses to acknowledge that benefit sanctions and cuts to social budgets have worsened people’s mental health and led to numerous tragedies. A time in which successive government announcements claiming to prioritise mental illness provide little or no corresponding investments to improve access to care. A time when the language of resilience is used to transfer the burden of structural discrimination and inadequacies onto individuals. In such a moment we need works of art which strip illness bare of its metaphors and give truth value to both its social conditions and the testimonies of those affected.

The Wild Duck is at the Almeida Theatre until 1st December 2018.

[1] Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and its Metaphors (London: Penguin Books, 2001), p.3.

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