Published in The TLS June 4, 2021
What kind of work should theatres re-open with? This question has been given a surprisingly forthright answer by the super-producer Sonia Friedman: a season of new writing in the West End, by emerging artists.
The decision sounds a suitably optimistic note as we all return, blinking, to theatreland; the West End is not, after all, the normal home for debut plays and playwrights. Any perceived risk is offset by short runs, a bankable season director in Ian Rickson, and the presence of famous names, such as Gemma Arterton.
Walden, by the American actor-turned-writer Amy Berryman, is the first production of this Re:Emerge season, followed by Yasmin Joseph’s J’Ouvert and Anna X, by Joseph Charlton. There are big claims being made for the season’s newness, freshness, boldness, but while Walden may be Berryman’s first professionally produced play, and its setting – a future world in the grip of climate disaster – certainly feels topically urgent, in its construction it is quite a familiar offering: the talky American family drama. Siblings are reunited in a remote cabin in the woods; tensions bubble, ideologies clash, past traumas are slowly revealed.
Stella and Cassie are twins whose lives appear to have diverged sharply: Cassie (Lydia Wilson), a NASA botanist, has just returned from a pioneering, year-long mission where she became the first person to grow a plant on the Moon. Stella (Arterton), meanwhile, has embraced the simple life with her fiancé Bryan in a log cabin (meticulously realized in fine-grain detail by the designer Rae Smith) with a rare, carefully nurtured garden, in one of the few places left in the US where you can breathe the air without a mask. Bryan is an EA – an Earth Advocate, part of the growing movement who want to save this damaged planet rather than funnelling money into “colonising” a new one.
The sisters, then, appear to offer two different visions for the human race. But things are inevitably less stark and more thorny than that. Stella used to be an astronaut in training alongside Cassie – it’s her dream, really, not her twin’s, and she is still reeling from her failure. Weaving through every interaction in their awkward reunion are vines of sibling rivalry, as well as a choking sort of love. They both also have serious daddy issues, encouraged into this high-pressure career by their father, himself a famous astronaut (and who also passed on his love of Thoreau’s Walden, an account of another cabin in the woods, to Stella).
Arterton and Wilson easily evoke a shared history in moments of overlapping, giddy reminiscing. But mostly, the relationship is achingly distant – despite each sister increasingly wondering throughout the play if what they really want is what the other one has. The dialectic becomes not just earth vs space, natural vs manmade, but also a question of more personal values: ambition, intellect, duty and the pursuit of knowledge against the need for love, family, a connection to nature, and a life well lived. These two urges prove painfully irreconcilable.
Rickson’s direction plays up the unresolvable divide by coaxing contrasting performances from Arterton and Wilson, which don’t always seem to match what we’re told about the characters. Bryan complains how walled off Stella is, but the always-watchable Arterton gives a physically expressive performance, so Stella seems practically brimming over with emotion. It’s as though we can see her, swimming through her resentment, perpetually almost sunk by jealousy. In contrast, Wilson plays Cassie as extremely contained – still, a little stiff even, in both word and gesture, with a bone-dry sense of humour. But her apparent sureness of purpose unravels as she spends more time with the refreshingly uncomplicated, literally down-to-earth Bryan. Fehinti Balogun nails a combination of easygoing goofiness and idealistic earnestness, bringing real warmth to the stage.
The decision to approach the subject of climate catastrophe and the ethical problems it will unavoidably throw up through a tightly focused relationship drama pays off for Berryman. Her prediction that a choice between leaving the earth and saving it would become bitterly divisive within society seems on the money, and pitting the hippieish Earth Advocates against the cool rationalism of space scientists makes fertile ground for debate. Although Walden is often heavy on the exposition, Berryman handles it pretty well, managing to convey a good deal of information about the state of the world – 1 million dying in a tsunami, a tide of climate refugees, wars over water supplies – in convincing conversations.
The twists of her plot – the neat oppositions, the carefully placed revelations and reversals – feel more problematically schematic. Walden is too controlled in its unravelling, with Stella and Cassie’s interactions lacking the messiness of real relationships. As a play, then, it ends up as a carefully controlled explosion rather than a big bang.