The Wild Duck, Donmar Warehouse, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

A revival of The Wild Duck that opens in December runs the grave risk, if it is more than halfway 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 that The Wild Duck's message can have a 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 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 daughter, Hedvig. The play demonstrates the dangers of imposing your own skewed, 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' excellent Gregers and a creepy, patent sincerity to the brainwashing concern with which he questions his unsuspecting chum Hjalmar Ekdal and poor little Hedvig. 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 injured wild duck captive 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 damaged Gregers.

To 18 February (0870 060 6624)

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