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Harold Pinter Theatre, London
THERE’S a tangible sense of expectation among the audience as, flashing our test-and-trace app, temperature taken and bemasked, we’re led to our socially distanced seats to witness the live performance of Amy Berryman’s first play Walden, directed by Ian Rickson.
Walden references a 19th-century work by Henry David Thoreau which chronicles his two-year experience of living in the American wilderness in transcendental isolation.
Berryman’s play, set in an environmentally degraded future, has Stella and Bryan living close to nature in a wilderness cabin whose isolation is interrupted when Stella’s twin sister Cassie arrives.
They are daughters of a pioneering space scientist involved in the colonisation of the moon and Mars. Stella is a space architect designing extraterrestrial habitats, while Cassie is a space botanist who has successfully grown plants on the moon’s surface.
The latter is about to embark on a permanent move to Mars and, much to Brian’s perturbation, is here to persuade her sister to join the party.
The themes in Walden encompass well-rehearsed tropes — should we expend trillions on space exploration or devote more resources to tackle climate change? Should we exploit the boundaries of new technologies or seek simpler solutions in adapting to challenges facing us?
Bryan is firmly on the side of the latter but the sisters are more conflicted. Stella, with her romantic attraction to Bryan, has a foot in both camps. Reluctant to completely abandon her prior achievements, she is unable to resolve her earthly instincts with her sibling loyalty to Cassie.
While the play yearns for some dramatic resolution but ultimately fails to achieve it, all three actors inhabit their roles convincingly. Gemma Arterton gives an accomplished performance as Stella, as does Lydia Wilson as Cassie.
Fehinti Balogun, as Earth advocate Bryan, exudes warmth and compassion as the uncertainties unravel around him.
Disconcertingly, there is a minimum of physical proximity between the three characters and while perhaps this is due to social distancing it detracts from the overall effectiveness of the piece.
The haunting soundscape by Emma Laxton underpins and complements the action and is one of the best features of the production.
But, most of all, it was simply good to be sitting in a theatre once more.
Runs until June 12, box office: haroldpintertheatre.co.uk
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