by Amy Berryman
Directed by Ian Rickson as part of the Re:Emerge season
Harold Pinter Theatre – until 12 June
Gotta hand it to Sonia Friedman, she doesn’t mess about. As the theatre industry slowly, carefully makes it’s way back into the light, one could completely understand producers playing it safe post-pandemic and only programming sure-fire hits and the sort of “timeless classics” that will have the moneyed classes reaching for their credit cards. Not so Ms Friedman however… Gawd bless her, she is presenting a trio of brand new plays by neophyte writers right in the West End. Frankly, if the other two are even half as good as Amy Berryman’s engrossing Walden, then we are in for a blazing theatrical summer.
High quality, challenging new drama was once a regular part of the West End landscape, but in recent decades the few instances that made it into the gilded playhouses of Shaftesbury Avenue were typically sold out transfers from critically approved powerhouses such as the Young Vic, the Royal Court or the Almeida. Many of these –The Inheritance, Jerusalem, The Ferryman, for example- were also Friedman productions. A notable and honourable anomaly is Jack Holden’s astonishing monologue-on-amphetamines Cruise, but that is the exception rather than the rule.
All the more joyous and remarkable then to welcome this quietly ambitious debut, and in a first class production by Ian Rickson with a trio of flawless performances to boot. It’s the sort of play, staging and casting that haunts you long after it’s 100 minute running time is over.
The play’s title comes from the 1854 memoir of transcendentalist writer Thoreau, chronicling his meditative two year spell living like a hermit amongst nature in a remote lakeside cabin in the woodland wilds of Massachusetts. Berryman places her heart-catching text in a similar such cabin, but this is some time in the future, although the environmental horrors and global unrest described by way of scene setting suggests that this is a year disturbingly close to our own. The overall feel is both bucolic and ominous.
The cabin -exquisitely realised by designer Rae Smith- is inhabited by nervy, fragile Stella (Gemma Arterton, never better) and her big-hearted, apparently more straightforward partner Bryan (an equally magnificent Fehinti Balogun) who is a leading light of an environmental group called Earth Advocates. They bicker amiably if uneasily as they prepare for the arrival of Stella’s estranged sister Cassie (“short for Cassiopeia – a queen” as Stella tartly observes), an astronaut just returned from a space mission. Cassie and Stella’s late father, a brutal task master, was also an astronaut as it turns out.
In a performance of outstanding delicacy and detail (note the way she subtly recoils when Bryan points out that she underwent voluntary sterilisation to qualify for the space programme) Lydia Wilson fascinatingly, painstakingly suggests that Cassie is a brilliantly clever young woman stricken with the creeping realisation that the life she has carved out for herself may not be worth the sacrifices she has made. It turns out that Arterton’s distressed Stella is every bit as brilliant as her twin, having been an architect for NASA before walking away from it all, and the rivalry between the sisters is rivetingly conveyed both in the writing and the performances.
Some of the intellectual excitement of the play -and there is plenty- comes from Berryman pitting Bryan’s über-Green ideology against Cassie’s pragmatic, more dynamic approach to nature and the planet, and then confounding our expectations. I was reminded slightly of Pinter’s haunting, elliptical Old Times, where a female interloper goes into spiritual battle with a male adversary over another woman who they both have shared history with, but the emotional charge here is much stronger. If there is a weakness, it’s in the somewhat predictable suggestion of an attraction between Bryan and his beloved’s identical twin, but even there the resolution to that, insofar as there is one, isn’t necessarily what one would expect.
Nonetheless, this is a bewitching, tremendously rich piece, simultaneously as organic and earthy as the woods where the action plays out, and as ethereal and transporting as the heavens which so fascinate and vitiate the warring sisters. It’s very funny and even joyful at times, as the twins connect fitfully over shared memories, while an amusedly excluded Bryan looks on. I won’t spoil the final scene but suffice it to say that it is deeply moving -grief stricken even, although nobody has died, quite the opposite- and provokes a recalibration of the sisters relationship, and forces one to reconsider which is the more selfish of the two.
Emma Laxton’s moody, menacing soundscape runs in counterpoint to Berryman’s satisfying, accomplished script throughout, evocative but never distracting, and Azusa Ono’s shape-shifting lighting design adds another layer of excellence to this seriously fine production.
Even under normal circumstances, a debut play as strong and thought-provoking as this one would be something to applaud but at a time when every theatrical opening -well, alright, ALMOST every opening- feels like a little miracle, Walden is even more of a cause for celebration. Roll on both Ms Berryman’s next play and the rest of the Re:Emerge season: the bar has been set very very high.