First Night: The Wild Duck, Donmar Warehouse, London

Timely portrayal of a neo-con zealot high on illusions of liberty

A revival of The Wild Duck that opens in December runs the grave risk, if more than half-way decent, of being dubbed a "Christmas quacker".

Michael Grandage's new production stands little chance of escaping this fate, for it is a beautifully judged and absorbing piece of work. The programme note quotes Ibsen as declaring that the play is not about political or social issues and, to be sure, the anti-hero represents the author's vehement repudiation of the label of crusading reformer with which he'd been stuck after A Doll's House.

But I was glad to be alerted to the way in which The Wild Duck's message can, in fact, have a very wide and public application by a strange continuity of casting between this production and the immediately preceding Donmar show.

In Sam Shepard's The God of Hell, Ben Daniels brilliantly portrayed a crazed neo-con who descends on a harmless Wisconsin farming couple and subjects them to his new brand of brutally coercive patriotism. In The Wild Duck, he makes an equally strong, if more quietly unsettling, impression as Gregers Werle, another zealot on a mad mission and visitor-from-hell.

Suffering from what David Eldridge's new translation calls "this 'I am always right' disease" and dogmatically convinced that the truth liberates, Ibsen's emotional totalitarian sets out to free an old school friend from the lies that have sustained his happy home life. The result: turmoil and the suicide of the 14-year-old daughter, Hedvig (played here by the piercingly vulnerable and uncannily child-like Sinead Matthews).

The play powerfully demonstrates the dangers of imposing your own skewed and self-interested idea of liberty on others. As the persisting mental image of the same actor in the neo-con role helps to underline, now is an opportune moment to remind people of the wisdom of this insight.

There's a soft, messianic stealth to Daniels's excellent Gregers and a creepy, patent sincerity to the brainwashing concern with which he questions his unsuspecting chum Hjalmar Ekdal and poor little Hedvig. Forever clutching himself, he seems to be wrapped in his own atmosphere of brooding loneliness, alienated even from the real Oedipally vengeful roots of his catastrophic attempt at marriage guidance.

The character seizes on the convalescent wild duck in the attic as a symbol of his wounded friend's refusal to confront reality, but I have never seen it established so unnervingly that there's more of the duck in the injured Gregers.

By comparison, Paul Hilton's finely drawn Hjalmar is almost winning in his bombastic weakness - a man capable of being distracted from grand gestures such as leaving home by the lure of creature comforts like the butter that consumes his attention as the proceedings press towards doom.

The tricky tragicomic mood of much of the piece is well served by this performance and by the sad, abashed crankiness of Peter Eyre's Old Ekdal and the refreshingly crusty realism of Nicholas le Prevost's Relling, a disreputable doctor w ho, in recognising that most people need a "life-lie" in order to survive, proves himself no quack.

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