Review: Walden (Harold Pinter Theatre)

Gemma Arterton, Fehinti Balogun and Lydia Wilson star in Amy Berryman’s new play

The cast of Walden
The cast of Walden
© Johan Persson

It's a terrific gesture of faith in the future of theatre that the influential producer Sonia Friedman returns to action with a season called Re:Emerge featuring three plays by promising writers.

It kicks off with Walden, starring Gemma Arterton, and written by New York-based Amy Berryman, a debut play set in the tricky territory of the near future. On Rae Smith's gloriously detailed set we are in a homely cabin in the woods, surrounded by carefully cultivated vegetables and a verdant wilderness, rather like the one in which the philosopher Henry Thoreau must have lived when he wrote his masterwork about living the good and natural life on Walden Pond in the 1850s.

But the news headlines are dominated by a tsunami which has displaced millions and wiped out Sri Lanka, and the fact that a group of astronauts are returning from a year on the moon, in which, for the first time, someone grew something in the ground. That woman turns out to be Cassie – short for Cassiopeia – who is the twin sister of Stella, both daughters of a famous astronaut, both groomed for success in space.
But Stella has given up dreams of astral plains and is now the inhabitant of this homestead and the fiancée of Bryan, an Earth Activist, committed to saving this planet rather than spending trillions to build new worlds in space. When Cassie arrives to see Stella, the battle lines are drawn, though they are complicated by the fact that it is Stella who has – before she was turned down by NASA, designed a habitat for living on Mars that is called Walden.

Gemma Arterton (Stella), Lydia Wilson (Cassie)
Gemma Arterton (Stella), Lydia Wilson (Cassie)
© Johan Persson

Walden is a play full of interesting ideas, and for the first half of its 1 hr and 45-minute running time it compels with the strength and complexity of both its plot and its thoughts. The idea of two twin sisters, circling each other and their memories of their father, like the moons around a planet, is fascinating. So is the antithesis of Bryan's idealistic belief that the Earth can and must be saved with the twins' obsession with space. Bryan argues its colonisation is wrong. Both women see it as a duty to develop the possibilities of worlds elsewhere.

In the end, however, it gets bogged down with the weight of its own arguments. In wanting to be fair, to present all sides, it never quite distinguishes the wood from the trees. It is also encumbered by a lot of family and romantic baggage which begin to take over from the larger themes at stake. It's never less than interesting, but it doesn't quite deliver on its promise, with too many strands thwarting its determination to reach a neat conclusion.

Nevertheless, Ian Rickson's production is nigh on immaculate, every detail from the soundscape (designed by Emma Laxton) to the lighting (by Azusa Ono) straining towards perfection. The intensity of the mood is gripping; it makes you want to listen and argue.

Arterton is terrific as Stella, jutting her chin and holding her body tense in an attempt to disguise the immense hurt that her twin has excelled in exactly the area that she longed to conquer. She's matched by Lydia Wilson as Cassie. Rather wonderfully, they actually look enough like to be sisters, and they share the same restricted body language which in Cassie's case is combined with a brittle watchfulness, a terror of revealing her emotion. Holding the ring between them, and introducing the most powerful note of humanity, is Fehinti Balogun, delivering a performance of such warmth and kindness that he wins the arguments just by his presence.

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Closed: 12 June 2021