Play that's too clever for its own good
- Credit: Johan Persson
Tim Walker gives three stars to Walden at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London until June 12
To say that Stella and Cassie are sisters who have grown apart is an under-statement. Cassie (Lydia Wilson) is a celebrated astronaut who's just returned from a year on the moon. Stella (Gemma Arterton) has, in the meantime, kept her feet very much on the ground and is living a determinedly simple rustic life with her fiancé Bryan (Fehinti Balogun).
The American writer Amy Berryman's new play Walden is an ambitious – perhaps overly-ambitious – piece that amounts to a statement of intent from the producer Sonia Friedman about her RE:EMERGE season that it kicks off at the Harold Pinter Theatre. It's going to be challenging, serious, and, if necessary, a bit heavy-going.
The premise is that warring and irresponsible humankind has out-stayed its welcome on Earth. The dilemma its thinkers face, in this dystopian future, is whether to spread its madness in new galaxies far away or leave it to simmer in its own juices? There is a lot of 'big picture' stuff about this – the materially successful Cassie is seen as the problem, so far as our planet is concerned, and her unambitious and all-but-agoraphobic sister, the solution – but, as ever with theatre, it works best with the human inter-action between the two principals.
Stella tried and failed to make a success of her own career at NASA, and, while she affects to be virtuous, there is clearly still an element of jealously in her relationship with her sister. Their late father himself did well at NASA and instilled in them a fiercely competitive spirit at an early age. Arterton – still best-known for Quantum of Solace – can communicate an awful lot with a raised eyebrow or a withering look.
Bryan, meanwhile, seems less of a character than a plot device as Stella's eco-warrior boyfriend whose principal purpose is to spark big discussions about the future of the planet and where we all go from here. It's all very clever and been carefully thought through – Cassie is clearly taken from Cassiopeia, the constellation, and Stella, of course, means star – and it almost certainly picks up on the way a lot of us were thinking during the lockdowns as we contemplated the price we were paying for our own collective stupidity, cruelty and greed.
The director Ian Rickson and the actors do what they can with it – there's a real chemistry between Arterton and Wilson – but at times they all seem to be struggling to keep their heads above the intellectual and philosophical waters. The simply rural idyll where Stella lives has been well-realised by Rae Smith and recalled for me the director Ian Rickson's production of Jerusalem which covered not exactly dissimilar terrain.
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Maybe Jerusalem worked better because its writer Jez Butterworth was a little more modest in terms of what he wanted to achieve. Berryman does an awful lot of telling, if not lecturing, and, in terms of what theatre should really be about – what it is that it shows – there is often very little going on. I wanted very much to like it, but it somehow manages to amount to something a lot less than the sum of its parts.
The title, by the way, is a reference to the 1854 book by the American transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau, which set out the practical and philosophical case or living a life in harmony with nature.
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