The Duck Variations & The Bay at Nice, Theatr Clwyd

@Theatr Clwyd

It was America versus Russia in this double bill of one act plays from Suitcase Theatre, but not the usual East meet West showcase that David Hare created!

The Duck Variations by David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross, American Buffalo) might sound on paper to be rather dull. Two old men, sat on a park bench, converse about the world, using ducks as an analogy for everything that’s going on around them. George is opinionated, and prone to believing everything he reads in the newspapers, so he is often prone to disseminating misinformation to the more poetical Emil. Where George talks, Emil listens, although when Emil does speak it is with the wonderment that often only still exists in small children.

This is typical early Mamet territory, contemplative characters, speaking in short snatches in the naturalistic way people do. The conversation meandering off course and back again, bits are repeated, bits overlap, there are bits where you think “what are they talking about?” And of course, there are those moments of silence as a conversation starts to fall flat. This naturalistic way of talking on stage is actually hard to do in a convincing manner, but both male leads managed the stop start exchanges effortlessly. As a member of the audience, you felt you had sat on a park bench across the way and were watching a slice of real life in front of you.

“You know, for centuries prior to this time man has watched birds.”

Just as Chekhov elicits pathos, Mamet’s 14 variations on the theme of ducks awakens something inside. Watching these two men philosophising about the world and relating it to the life of a duck was both bizarre and cleverly intertwined. Watching the birds flying in formation, their talk leads them to discuss the fact that the lead duck will at some point fall behind, they won’t be the leader anymore, they’ll go to the back of the pack and at some point they will inevitably die, whilst some younger bird will become leader, and the cycle will happen again. Then there is the tale of the ongoing
fight between the duck and its arch enemy the blue heron. As George regales these pieces of information he has read, Emil relates back his opinion, because everything must have meaning, everything has to have some purpose…even the bench they are sitting on has a purpose.

"Oil-bearing ducks floating up dead on the beaches. Beaches closing. No place to swim. The surface of the sea is solid dying wildlife."

With countries all over the world suddenly declaring a Climate Crisis, it’s interesting to hear a play written in 1972 discussing environmental issues. There’s gook in the stratosphere choking everything, “the air is more a part of our world than we would like to admit.” Even Emil’s description of oil-covered ducks washed up on beaches sounds terribly current, a sobering thought when I think that this play and I are about the same age…in my lifetime, issues that were being addressed are still occurring and we’ve done nothing to make things better, some might say they’ve become even worse.

This play worked well because of the contrast in the characters, and the confidence that both actors brought to the stage. George, opinionated, slightly arrogant, superior, works well against the foil of Emil. George will never change, he visits the park and goes back home, whereas Emil has taken to the streets; he sleeps on the park bench which is surrounded by his few bits and pieces that he collects, hoping to sell to make enough money to keep himself fed. Two people with very different outlooks on life, two people who could be friends, or more likely, two folk who just stumbled across each other and started talking. As each part of the conversation comes to an end the lights go down, and then as they come back up, they continue their spasmodic chat, always referencing the ducks they can see bobbing on the lake in front of them. 

The conversations might sound a little misguided, but watching the two characters muse about the environment, the lifecycle of things, the purpose behind everything, the needs of the world before and after them, gives out a little hope…that something as small as duck, can make people think about so many global issues on such an epic scale!


The Bay at Nice by David Hare left me feeling rather colder…and not just because it was set in Russia! It actually forms part of a double bill with another play of David Hare’s called Wrecked Eggs, which shows the freedom of America against the constraints of the Soviet regime. It was therefore interesting that Suitcase Theatre had chosen a different American play to offset against it.

The Bay at Nice - Henri Matisse, 1918
Valentina is an expert on the paintings of Henri Matisse, having once studied under the master himself in Paris. She has been summoned to The Hermitage, Leningrad, to see if she can authenticate a painting that they have recently acquired (hence the name of the play which is the title of one of Matisse’s paintings.) Whilst being pressed to authentic the painting, she is visited by her adult daughter who requires money from her mother so that she can afford to divorce her boring husband and marry an older, more interesting man.

The play is essentially an argument between doing what you want and doing what you should. Valentina had been living a life of freedom in Paris in the 1920s, lying in studios with various men, smoking too much, doing what she wanted with free abandon, until she got pregnant. She decided she had to keep the baby, abandoning her life, her career, her art, in order to move back to Russia so that her child would be Russian. But you realise when she is in conversation with her daughter, that she holds her daughter as the reason she no longer paints, that coming back to Russia did not allow her to have the freewill she had in France and that she has lived her life through duty and sacrifice. She is angry that her daughter can now stand in front of her to say she wants a life of her own, that she is not duty bound to stay with her husband, that she can take their children and live a free life with an older man, a man who is a sanitation engineer, and this fills Valentina with horror and despair.

“Great art cannot be produced by obeisance to classical rules or willpower.”

The play gives plenty of food for thought, and makes you question your own actions as to whether you should do things for your own happiness, or whether you should follow social conventions of what others believe. Valentina is aghast that her daughter Sophia would want to leave a man with a reputable job for that of a sanitation engineer, but as Sophia passionately defends this work, you see elements of Hare’s better play, Skylight, surfacing, whereby those doing the mundane jobs are the people who effect society the most and are therefore the most important.

The play rests very much on the relationship with Valentina and her daughter, and I just didn’t feel any connection between the two leads. These are two confident women who believe in themselves and in their passioned arguments, but the performances were a little timid. Valentina has a number of withering put downs in the cleverly written text, but these were sadly lost in delivery. Both actors seemed to be unsure of what they were saying, so it sounded more like remembering a text rather than impassioned pleas for one to listen to the other. Things did improve however, when Valentina sat reminiscing about her past and she relaxed into reliving her time spent with Matisse.

The play hints at several themes which Hare could have written into a much better bodied play including the obvious animosity between mother and daughter which is never fully explained. You can presume that much of this is because Valentina chose to have her daughter and gave her life away in doing so, but this is merely hinted at. We also know that Sophia is not only running away from her husband, but she is fearful that if she stays any longer she will be asked to become a member of the “party” something that she is averse to, but we don’t know the details of why.

Whilst The Duck Variations ebbs and flows into a conversation of ideas which you can feel a part of, The Bay at Nice is a clumsy play that feels more like a notebook of ideas that Hare never really got to grips with. It is a play more about words than acting, and this showed on stage, as no-one really had anything to do other than stand about, arms folded, looking despairingly at one another. It was however an entertaining evening, so it was a great shame that the audience only amounted to about twenty people, and some of them were theatre staff.

The Duck Variations/The Bay at Nice double bill runs at Theatr Clwyd until 25th May 2019.