The Wild Duck
In Belvoir St Theatre’s promotional video for its production of The Wild Duck, a jittery soundtrack punctures scenes of a young family’s torrid internal affairs. But for a few brief seconds, a sexagenarian played by Anthony Phelan cradles a live duck onstage and all is unnervingly calm.
Henrik Ibsen’s play heads to the Malthouse Theatre this month after a critically-lauded season in Sydney, and though Phelan’s affable young co-stars have been touted as some of theatre’s most important up-and-comers, he is the real centerpiece in a performance which has won him a Helpmann and a Sydney Theatre Critic's Award. The exercise in voyeurism is an adaption of a Norwegian play, directed by Simon Stone and contemporised by placing its characters in a large glass dome – or prison, depending on how you look at it – equipped with radio microphones. The proceeding 90 minutes play out inside the box as the audience peer into the very private lives of a tormented family and a spirited duck.
Phelan, who plays Old Ekdal in one of his most awarded supporting roles to date, notes the elaborate glass window onto the stage makes the performances all the more real.
“It had a very interesting effect on the performance,” he said. “It’s so secure, as though we were being protected by this shield, but at the same time it had the effect that there was this peering, voyeuristic presence outside it, where everyone was looking, and I think that was the desired effect from the director and the designer, who wanted that idea of domestic lives.”
Playing a geriatric patriarch, clinging to the final threads of his sanity, Phelan praises fellow cast members, director Stone and the original author of the play Ibsen – almost everyone bar himself.
“I’m very humbled by it. It belongs to all of us, the award, in a way, because from the word go it was a wonderful collaboration.
“My enthusiasm really rose to the occasion early when I read the original with this mad, wonderful old man walking through these scenes in his strange old attic, his guns and [his] funny old army uniform – so I thank Ibsen. He’s a beautifully balanced character. His sense of humor is certainly balanced with pathos.”
And indeed the role is a departure from Phelan’s experience of being typecast into roles. Having appeared in Love My Way, Spirited, The Black Balloon and Little Fish, a great deal of his career has been crammed into the villainous category.
“Im 6’2” and I’ve got a deep voice – often they go, we’ve got the villain there, get him to play that. Or a cop, or the alcoholic, or the abusive alcoholic cop. But that’s okay, it’s work,” he said. And while The Wild Duck also could be classed as work, it may be one of his most career-making moves. The role required Phelan to work alongside a rather unorthodox and troublesome cast member though: don’t work with children or animals, the adage goes, and the duck had its share of diva moments.
“The most important member of the cast of course is the duck. To begin with I was really scared, and I think the duck realised that. It went, ‘Hey man, relax’. And apart from attacking my fingers on opening night which was bad timing, I learned to make the duck comfortable.”
At one point in the play, Phelan’s character recites a monologue while holding the duck in his arms. Towards the end of the season, he said, the duck was so at ease it would nod off to sleep during this part of the performance. “We did have a good working relationship eventually,” he laughed, “once I stopped being nervous. I think animals feel those vibes.”
As the play surges towards its violent conclusion and the many sacrosanct secrets are leaked, the story remains within its literal fourth (glass) wall in the Edkal household. Family, says Phelan, is key; perhaps the point that Ibsen, and director Stone, have been trying to make.
“I think we don’t always have control over our family history. [In the play] we’re born into a family that’s had a lot of trauma, sadness, heartache. A new generation of children being born into a family don’t have any control over that. It’s up to the generation before it to protect them and they don’t always know how to do that.”
In taking his talents to the theatre, Phelan’s found unexpected fulfillment and it’s pretty darn clear to the panels of the country’s major theatre awards along with charmed audiences.
“I’m pretty confident in saying this has been one of the highlights of my career so far. I’ve been so very fortunate in my 32 years of working with directors, and Simon could intuitively and instinctively see, understand the sort of actor I am and how I work. And that doesn’t always happen. But when it does, I can create. At this point in time this has been one of the most joyous experiences I’ve had in my career.”
So now that the actor is a Helpmann winner and has earned his theatrical salt, you’d think he’d allow himself some due praise? Not likely.
“I’m pretty tough on myself, I’m a bit of a perfectionist. I think the hardest thing is to be kinder to myself.”
BY BELLA ARNOTT-HOARE
The Wild Duck opens at the Malthouse Theatre on Friday February 17 and runs until Saturday March 17.