Walden, the third and final instalment of Sonia Friedman’s Re:Emerge programme, seen on the London stage earlier this year, has now made its way to the online world where it debuted last night joining Anna X and J’Ouvert. As the year draws rapidly to a close it is, inevitably, a time for reflection and one of the big topics of the year (other than you know what) was the climate conference COP 26 in Glasgow. This piece of new writing by Amy Berryman (it’s actually her first produced play), takes natural, or more accurately, man-made disaster as its backdrop at a time in the near future where some of the gloomier prognostications about our continued existence on this planet have started to come true. Acute water shortage in India and a tsunami which has consumed Sri Lanka are just the tip of the environmental disaster iceberg and the human race has started to look to colonising the moon and Mars by way of ensuring survival.
Stella, one of the original architects of such plans, and her partner Bryan have retreated to a rural haven in the wilderness to live their lives in relative simplicity and harmony with nature much as Henry David Thoreau wrote about in his book referenced by the play’s title. Indeed, Bryan is an Earth Advocate (think eco warrior plus) who not only wants to get back to basics but questions the very idea of governments spending vast sums on conquering the skies when they have a whole planet to care for. If Stella is slightly less devoted, it is a position with which she feels strongly aligned if only because of her commitment to Bryan himself. It is also a clear reaction to her former position as a NASA employee and daughter of a famous former astronaut. Her twin sister Cassie (both women’s names ooze significance) has remained on and is still an advocate for the space programme. She is due to lead on the Mars colonisation and has just returned from the Moon having achieved the seemingly impossible in getting something to grow on the inhospitable lunar surface. She joins the pair for a visit before taking off on a mission from which she will never return. Inevitably, for after all this is a play, pressures mount and conflict breaks out encompassing both the political and technological positions of the sisters but which also explores the personal tensions between the siblings. Stella has her longed for rural idyll but clearly misses her former questing existence; the reverse is true for her twin.
This play is stuffed full of binary opposites such as this – one wants a child, the other doesn’t, a) prefers wine while b) favours beer and so on. This at times threatens to make the whole thing seem contrived and overly mechanical as various duologues explore the ideologies and personal feelings both stated and in the subtext. Berryman steers an undoubtedly fine line but manages to come down on the right side of it making us care for the characters and the situation they are in. The oppositions even carry over into Ian Rickson’s mostly subtle direction where the sisters are placed at opposite sides of the stage, the set for which has been well realised by Rae Smith, reminding me of a place I once stayed at in Vermont. Meanwhile Bryan figuratively and literally tends to inhabit the middle ground and is the medium through which the siblings’ rivalries are explored. To be fair, the blocking may have had more to do with Covid social distancing than any deliberate artistic choice.
Gemma Arterton and Lydia Wilson play the twins and confidently hold the attention during their interactions; they certainly have no difficulty in persuading us that they share their genes. Arterton as Stella exudes a purse-lipped sense of insecurity which threatens to overwhelm the character and she is not averse to running away when the going gets tough. For me, though, Wilson as Cassie has the slightly more interesting role as the interloper brining what she sees as a dose of realism to the countryside retreat. However, her uncertainties about whether to accept the mission or not gradually peel away revealing onion like layers of insecurity. Holding the balance of power as Bryan, Fehinti Balogun also holds the piece together and stops the play from becoming a top heavy exploration of sisterly rivalry. Balogun seems to be making something of a speciality of the environmentally themed play having recently been seen leading Complicité’s Can I Live? He’s an interesting actor of subtlety – one to watch in the new year.
Sonia Friedman Productions is to be congratulated for bringing the three plays of the Re:Emerge season to the stage and now into the online world during 2021. It would have been so much easier to go for the tried, tested and readily recognisable but instead they have opted for contemporary works staged powerfully and ensured, through broadcast release, that they have had as wide an exposure as possible – more of the same please in 2022.