What a weird kind of waterbird Simon Stone is. He came to prominence a few years ago with a theatre group called the Hayloft Project and a production of the Thyestes of Seneca (the Roman more often cited as the precedent for Shakespeare’s violence than performed) that left everyone incandescent with awe. There was a superb production of Wedekind’s Spring Awakening, a ghastly one of Brecht’s Baal and then there was a production of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck that commanded the attention of the theatre-going nation: it was set in a glass box and performed with a degree of telegraphic naturalism that left little room for the swirling black waters of Ibsen’s symbolism or his troll kingdoms. It had a top professional cast (Ewen Leslie as the husband, Anita Hegh as the wife, Toby Schmitz as the friend who returns with revelations, John Gaden as his rich father) and a new ending…by Simon Stone.
Well, now he has written yet another version of The Wild Duck and filmed it as The Daughter. It’s been made in the New South Wales high country, has Geoffrey Rush as the old capitalist and Sam Neill as the bushie who went to jail after working with him. It’s quite a cinematic calling card to make out of a passion for tinkering with other people’s masterpieces.
Simon Stone has never been predictable. In 2012 he angered the Arthur Miller estate by eliminating the wife’s final speech from his stripped-bare and somewhat lustreless production of Death of a Salesman with Colin Friels as Willy Loman. Then he was given a writing credit for a Cherry Orchard after Chekhov. That would have shocked the Michael Frayns and David Hares of this world who had simply done translations or versions. Stone has recapitulated Chekhov as faithfully as they had, but claimed to be original in a way that brought to mind Borges’ Pierre Menard where the translation of Don Quixote word for word into the Spanish of the original is said to be an infinitely richer thing because it has moved through time.
After this, not to be deterred, Stone did a farcical non-production of Gogol’s The Inspector General that was no such thing; it was actually a knockabout comedy about a Simon Stone figure failing to put on a viable production of The Inspector General. It was a hoot. That production included a superb performance by Zahra Newman, who had kept her head while all about were losing theirs, as Varya in The Cherry Orchard. And it is one of the peculiar qualities of Simon Stone that he is sometimes, not by any means always, a superb director of actors. Never more so than in Neighbourhood Watch, a Lally Katz play a long way from the mountains of Ibsen and Chekhov, but the kind of play Stone should do more often because it allowed him to work with Robyn Nevin, staggering as the old Hungarian woman.
So it has long been clear that Simon Stone was a talented stage director who also had plenty to learn but who at the same time was afflicted with a sense of auteurship that was intensely ambitious and veered and zigzagged in the direction, at least sometimes, of the delusional: Salesman was not improved, his Cherry Orchard was in no sense an original piece of writing, had The Wild Duck been improved and, if not, why try to fix it?
The Wild Duck is one of the greatest plays of the most influential and powerful playwright of the late nineteenth century—only Chekhov equals or could be said to surpass him, and Chekhov’s reputation depends on a handful of plays. Ibsen wrote 12 great prose dramas that were preceded by those extraordinary works of poetic drama, Peer Gynt and Brand. Why on earth did Simon Stone decide to modernise a play that is at the heart of the reinvention of the modern dramatic idiom? Here in 1897 is George Bernard Shaw, the greatest English-language dramatist of his generation, on The Wild Duck:
Where shall I find an epithet magnificent enough for The Wild Duck? To sit there getting deeper and deeper into that Ekdal home, and getting deeper and deeper into your own life all the time, until you forget that you are in a theatre; to look on with horror and pity at a profound tragedy, shaking with laughter all the time at an irresistible comedy; to go out not from a diversion, but from an experience deeper than real life ever brings to most men or often brings to any man; that is what The Wild Duck was like last Monday at the Globe.
There are different reasonable responses to Stone’s stage rewrite of The Wild Duck: his ending—with an epilogue, in recollected sadness after Hjalmar and Gina’s marriage has broken up—is not an improvement on Ibsen’s ending with its starkness and catastrophe but it is congruent with his urgent, powerfully articulated sense of the play as a whole, which is bold and contemporary and which, in minimising the sense of archetype and sleeping gods who will destroy us, is at the same time a way of cutting through any potential for Victorian sentimentalism in this most nineteenth century of the great Ibsen plays.
It shouldn’t be too hard to understand, though, why Stone rewrites beyond this. The argument that The Wild Duck is somehow beyond our ken because of the atavism of its representation of fatherhood, the fierceness of the insistence on biological inheritance and literal paternity means The Wild Duck is not wholly unrelated to the way the Victorians were awed by Shakespeare’s King John, with its proposed murder and subsequent death of the boy prince Arthur; to Oliver Twist and Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop (at whose death Oscar Wilde said, ‘you would have to have a heart of stone not to laugh’); and beyond these, at a level beyond all laughter, to the boy in Jude the Obscure who kills himself, ‘because we are too menny’; and perhaps, to the raped young girl in The Possessed who neither does nor doesn’t belong to the book proper, though Stavrogin’s unprintable ‘Confession’ comes with every edition of the great Dostoyevsky novel. This, like Jude the Obscure—the reaction to which led Hardy to forsake fiction—was unspeakable to the Victorians. And the fate of Hedvig, which may have been a whirlpool of obsession to the first generation to encounter The Wild Duck, remains problematic for us: hard to remember, hard to grasp, not as easy to interpret as it might be.
The Victorian age, which sent children down mines and suffered ghastly infant and child mortality rates, also initiated a particular cult of the Child. In some ways it goes back to Blake and the Romantics, but it has its massive popular instantiation in Dickens (not just with Oliver and Little Nell and Tiny Tim but perhaps most powerfully with Joe in Bleak House) and then, most terribly, its codas in Ibsen and Hardy and Dostoyevsky: that sense of knives in the wilderness obliging a cruel god, of a sacrifice the imagination can sense in whatever wilderness it makes of itself.
Ibsen came from Norway, a backwater however icebound, and there’s wilderness all around us in The Daughter, this new Australian film of The Wild Duck, as well as Simon Stone’s second attempt to rewrite this weird and terrible icon of nineteenth-century drama.
But let’s hold onto the central question of motivation. Simon Stone, born in Basel and a fluent German speaker with a German theatrical future ahead of him—Oresteias, or whatever, in German-language progressivist theatres—is an Australian, some kind of bush pig, and it can be no coincidence that The Daughter is the second film of The Wild Duck to be shot in Australia in a bush setting. But the coincidence is simply creative, even though that creativity is contingent on the bush piggery of a local theatre that is impoverished in terms of theatre literacy.
Let’s take Britain by way of contrast. You could no more tack on a new ending to The Wild Duck and call it The Wild Duck in London where the play is regularly performed than you could have Eliza Doolittle here, there or anywhere, shoot Higgins at the end of My Fair Lady. Or, if you like, have Horatio kill Hamlet. There are dramatic expectations that cannot be reversed unless they cease to be expectations. Simon Stone can change the ending of The Wild Duck because most people don’t know it (or if they do know it, tend to forget it, because the mind does not want to remain prisoner to it).
The simple bush pig reason—apart from national ignorance providing a kind of licence—is that he’s the kind of interpretive intelligence that has to see itself as primarily creative in order to function at all. Hence the necessary nonsense of his version of The Cherry Orchard. Peter Brook was right to say Brecht was entitled to change the ending of Coriolanus and have him sack Rome. After all, Brook said, the play was not burnt. But the instructive example here is not a great dramatist like Brecht but a great translator like Christopher Logue. Why does Logue, who can translate Homer so flawlessly on the line (‘And thou and I were left to rip Troy down alone’) make up so much of his War Music? Because it is necessary for him to feel like a free agent as an artist in order to translate.
If you want a sense of the original Wild Duck Simon Stone felt licensed to adapt and deform, there are a couple of widely available versions. In 1971 Cedric Messina—the I, Claudius man—directed it for BBC television in a version now part of the BBC Ibsen disc set with Denholm Elliott as Hjalmar (the man who learns the revelation about the genesis of his family) and Derek Godfrey as the terrible secret sharer Gregers. The wife Gina is played by Rosemary Leach and the daughter Hedvig by Jenny Agutter. This is a classic British rendition of the Ibsen with slightly cluttered movement in early work-a-day colour and with a class-conscious society’s emphasis on the wife’s background and the fact that she had been a housekeeper. It is a performance that sounds better than it looks and it has a very fine and clear-cut performance from Agutter (to become famous in Australia as the girl in Nicholas Roeg’s Walkabout) as Hedvig. She’s 14 in Ibsen and Agutter plays her as a fresh, poignant early teenager—consonant with Victorian late starters.
Interestingly, the other Wild Duck that, quite weirdly, was made in Australia in 1983 and was set in the Edwardian bush has a Hedvig called Hettie or Henrietta significantly younger looking. Lucinda Jones was 13 when she played the part but looks no more than 12, a ‘little’ girl some distance from the edge of puberty, nowhere near the lower depth. It also has a handful of the better actors in the world in the form of Jeremy Irons as the husband who is knocked for six and Liv Ullman as the wife. It’s a better film than its reputation, even if it’s a bit softer with its goldish Australian filters—the final immolation is not nearly as clearly volitional as the original or the dead faithful BBC version, though we get the younger, quite forceful Rhys McConochie as the tough-minded doctor who takes a dim view of the ‘demoniac’ revelations of the friend from hell played a little stiffly and a little feyly by Arthur Dignam.
It’s an interesting piece of Nordic melodrama transposed daringly and admirably to bush pastoral and it makes you wonder if the boy from Basel didn’t happen to see it on TV and decide that he too could Australianise, change and mutate with impunity. As I was coming out of the screening of The Daughter, a man with a Mediterranean-Australian accent accosted me and said ‘What did you think? It reminded me of Euripides.’ ‘Oh, well it’s based on Ibsen’s The Wild Duck.’ ‘You know more than I did,’ came the intense reply.
The Daughter is filmed with a self-conscious artiness of manner, flickering and lingering in its cinematography and directorial style as if in homage to that sense of time passing you get in the nouvelle vague Frenchmen in the 1960s. It has been translated once again to bush Australia but this time to a southern hinterland, all wintry greys and pale skies and dense shrouded dark green forestation. Though filmed in southern New South Wales, it has a very crypto-Tasmanian atmospheric: the sense of a country town, of an enclosed world consistent with Ibsen, but full of leisurely doodles and developments, is effectively conveyed but with a good deal less concentration than in either Ibsen’s original or in Stone’s stage version.
Geoffrey Rush plays the rich man who is remarrying and who also proceeds to close down the timber mill, which is the town’s primary source of labour. It is a touch more explicit in The Daughter that the father of the husband who is encouraged to freak out, the huntsman who finds the duck in the first place, played by Sam Neill, took the rap and went to jail in order to save his rich mate.
This, like much of The Daughter, gives the film the air of something that derives from an expansive source that has been anthologised and imperfectly realised in the film that adapts it. If you didn’t know what his original was, you might well think Stone was working from, let’s say, a nineteenth-century Russian original—a novel by Turgenev, perhaps, which he was improvising around with a lot of not-quite-focused energy.
It’s very much Hedvig’s film and she (alone of all her tribe) retains her original name. She is blonde and attractively self-possessed as Odessa Young plays her and she’s clearly not only about 16 but also sexually mature and confident. There’s a funny scene—attractive enough in itself but not exactly integrated into the main drama—where she goes into the bush to try things out with an awkward nice-looking boy who is put off his stroke when he cottons on to the fact that she’s done this before. With the close of the timber mill he has to go and she looks after him with longing and sadness (which is odd for the Hedvig of Ibsen, who is not only going blind but is entirely enclosed by the warmth of her immediate family: whose desires, if you like, are all a matter of her mother and her father, her grandfather and the beautiful duck). Stone’s film diffuses this so you feel as though this is yet another—pace my Greek friend—Euripidean variation on a dramatic template.
It dissipates the central action and at the same time opens it out. Geoffrey Rush is shot at his most Caesarean, it’s a slightly beglamoured perspective on the heartless old son of a bitch, which creates moments of sympathy because of the actor’s pensiveness and presence and is matched, in a different key, by Sam Neill’s grandfather: superbly present but a bigger character than he is in the original, though to what purpose we’re not sure.
Then at the heart of things there’s the comeback son who is filled with disgust for his father. In The Daughter we get no sense—as we do in Ibsen and I think in Stone’s stage version—of an intense Calvinistic lust for the truth though the heavens fall. In Paul Schneider’s very American, rather obnoxious and perverse characterisation, the character falls headlong, as if on a mad impulse, into ruining everybody’s lives and this in turn adds to the sense of random naturalism rather than of the melodrama transfigured into tragedy, which is the hallmark of the original.
It’s as if we’re seeing the tesserae, the fragments of some potential small-town personal experience that lurked at the back of the film and was being wrested into this attempt at art. And this is a very funny way for a putative ambitious filmmaker to make his debut, when the basis for his script is not only one of the most famous dramatic works of the late nineteenth century and one of the formative works of the modern dramatic canon, but also a play which he had already put a very distinctive personal mark on by rewriting its ending and creating a coda that was something like a signature, a touch that underwrote the adaptation’s very distinctive drift towards naturalism.
It was the late Bille Brown who said to me, at the Melbourne first night of the stage version, that Simon Stone got everything but the trolls. But with Ibsen the trolls are half the story. Whereas Simon Stone was at pains in his very accomplished stage Wild Duck—which was the point where his traduttore/traditore (translator/traitor) game went mainstream—it was, however you adjudge the question of improvement, a masterful effort, the kind of production that had nothing juvenile or fringe-like or amateur about it—to make a contemporary Wild Duck, to ensure that there was no underpinning of the symbolic or, whether in subtext or atmospheric, the poetic about it.
The weirdness of The Daughter in the context of Simon Stone’s career is the extent to which the film takes this a step further. It’s especially odd because you suspect he would understand that plays adapt easily to the screen because of their inbuilt dramatic coherence. Yet Stone has created a kind of panoramic and in some ways diffused Wild Duck, as though Ibsen in his own background—which must be a matter of theatrical culture—had been arrived at through the roughhouse of Australian experience.
And yet it’s fascinating that the title of this film should be The Daughter, the title of a story that had a direct influence on that most groundbreaking of all Ibsen plays, the first of his modern tragedies, Ghosts, which is prefigured in a Norwegian story by Mauritz Hansen. Simon Stone’s The Daughter is the opposite—it’s the development of the technique of Stone’s stage coda into something else.
And the daughter Hedvig is at the centre of this. Stone has moved a long way from the innocent young teenager of Ibsen’s conception, faithfully reproduced in Jenny Agutter’s 1971 characterisation and also in the way Stone directed Eloise Mignon in his stage version. Odessa Young’s Hedwig is no longer a prepubescent girl, nor is she the innocent 14-year old whose sexuality is undiscovered and presentationally latent. No, she is a normal red-blooded, hungry adolescent girl yearning for the boyfriend whose bare buttocks we see writhing and thrusting, as he fumbles where she’s sure of herself.
We still get the romance of the beautiful wild bird, but the girl, the daughter of the title, is an Ophelia revisited. Anyone who saw the younger (not yet famous) Cate Blanchett thumping her genitals as a deranged Ophelia in the Neil Armfield production of Hamlet with Richard Roxburgh in the title role and Geoffrey Rush as Horatio in 1995 knows how far the role can depart from pre-Raphaelite images of the Romantic and elegiac.
Well, Hedvig the aroused teenager acting out a sexual destiny is in some ways a more audacious—less implicit—dislocation. The moment of truth comes in one of The Daughter‘s most obvious lapses. Hedvig, having heard the news of her background from Miranda Otto, her mother, confronts the wretched woman in her classroom. The scene wobbles with histrionic self-indulgence—unlike anything else in the film it is clearly wrong, it falsifies every dramatic or human probability in sight—and it is in some ways amazing that the producers let it through. It’s hard not to see this blatantly histrionic, this downright luvvyish scene as an allegory of the risks Stone is toying with in The Daughter and the way he is taking such a long walk around his own previous status as a stage director. The high school confrontation scene is so theatrical—so blatantly and rawly theatrical, like the work of a director who has never really been a playwright, just a fiddler, just an adaptor, not a primary creator—that it looks like a return of the repressed.
When Stone was interviewed by Michael Bodey in the Australian he went to enormous if unconvincing lengths to present himself as a born (or born-again) film director who had never been primarily interested in the stage. All that world of words was a matter of stepping-stones, it was the world of filmic images he wanted to dwell in. It was, in some ways, an embarrassing performance, and it was a world away from how Ingmar Bergman, say, would have spoken about the respective mediums he worked in. But then Bergman was a primary creator and a sure-footed one.
It’s no doubt part of Stone’s sheer hubristic ambition in The Daughter that he has so much of the écriture of New Wavism and vérité in the film and that he doesn’t allow himself to be guided compositionally by one of this country’s cinematographers (say in the way Ken Branagh was guided by Kenneth MacMillan in Henry V). The Daughter is full of cinematic effects—shadowed Hensonesque nightscapes, the way in which the camera bows and curtsies to Geoffrey Rush at his most patrician, and also, by way of doubling, with formalistic and accidental richness in relation to Sam Neill’s performance as the old huntsman reprobate—without looking anything like as compositionally secure as an episode of The Bridge or House of Cards or Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake.
It’s full of details of dramatic interest—drunken girls in the vicinity of the university in the big smoke, people in pubs and, a bit abysmally, a lonesome duo when everyone else has left the wedding party. But the film is forever going down byways of interest rather than concentrating its central passion in a way that’s slightly odd for a stage director—think of Visconti or Bergman, think of Elia Kazan or Mike Nichols. Is it possible that the relative lack of dramatic concentration is because Stone is taking his long farewell of the stage and at the same time attempting to transfigure it?
This is, after all, a crucial rewrite of his already rewritten Wild Duck. It’s as though Stone has taken the unspeakable nature of what happens to Hedvig in the original, something the mind tends not to want to hold even though Ibsen is explicit through the mouth of the truth-telling doctor that her actions are deliberate—and he’s changed it utterly. This is a Wild Duck that by a hairsbreadth has some sort of happy ending or an ending that allows for the possibility of future happiness. It’s odd, and so too is the way this film is so implicitly in homage to its most senior players.
Those who saw Toby Schmitz as the guy who tells all in Stone’s stage version—one of his least self-regarding and boyish performances—will miss him here. Paul Schneider is not, on film, his equal and the conception is, as we’ve seen, errant and random.
It’s also interesting that Ewen Leslie is less impressive as Henry in the screen version. The complexities—and hidden darknesses—of the role might have been served by a starrier or more sinister actor, such as Ben Mendelsohn. None of which is to deny the widespread openness of The Daughter or that it has thrilled some fraction of Australian film critics (as well as audiences) by the sheer ambition of its script. Perhaps Stone should have a go at an Australian Brothers Karamazov next, with Geoffrey Rush as the father, Sam Neill as Father Zosima and Chris Hemsworth as Dmitri.