Sci-fi drama ‘Walden’ is topical, futuristic, and a bit overly ambitious
There’s a moment early in Amy Berryman’s new play Walden when NASA botanist Cassie (a stoic Lydia Wilson) enters wearing a plastic face covering that looks like a mix between an oxygen mask and the N95s that have become a wardrobe staple in the Covid-19 pandemic. “You don’t need a mask,” her twin’s boyfriend Bryan (a completely charming Fehinti Balogun) says. “The air is totally safe.”
Meanwhile, the socially distanced audience at the Harold Pinter Theatre, where producer Sonia Friedman’s Re:Emerge season of new plays is premiering, sits wearing masks. The air is not safe. Not yet.
While Berryman’s play is set in the future, when climate change has completely ravaged the Earth, it’s moments like these that make the story feel eerily prescient, albeit with its fair share of plot holes and loose ends. But the ambition and the concepts are definitely admirable.
Cassie (full name: Cassiopea, like the constellation) has just returned from a moon mission to visit her twin Stella (Gemma Arterton), who has started a new life with Bryan in a seemingly idyllic cabin in the woods where they can avoid screens and live off the land. (Designer Rae Smith, lighting designer Azusa Ono, and sound designer Emma Laxton’s collective vision and concept is utterly transformative, completed by the scents and sounds of the forest.)
Bryan is an “Earth advocate,” passionate about saving the planet, while Cassie and formerly Stella devoted their lives to space colonization and finding new places to settle. However, the characters emerge more as archetypes, neither of which is given enough of a foundation to make complete sense. The play also overflows with metaphors, eliminating any possibility for human nuance or interpretation.
For one, the play’s title refers to Henry David Thoreau’s seminal work about a pastoral escape from everyday life. Not only is the story’s setting reminiscent of Walden Pond, but Bryan reads Thoreau’s book at one point, and a NASA space mission, crucial to the plot, bears the same name.
Some threads get lost in the relationships as well, as the twins are at once happy to reconnect while also furious with each other’s life choices. You can never quite tell how they’re going to react to each other, because the previous scene seems to bear no hold on what follows. Without giving too much away, the ending also becomes a bit incongruous and seems to conclude multiple times.
Arterton is handed the most difficult task as Stella, the mediator between “Earth” and “Space,” and she tackles the role with empathy and subtly. While she could easily descend into melodrama, she keeps the character rooted in reality in an increasingly unrealistic premise. Director Ian Rickson sets a rhythmic pace for the proceedings, complete with pauses peppered throughout, and Marc Bradshaw’s music complements the story beautifully.
Walden shows a lot of promise for a new writer on the scene, as this marks Berryman’s debut, and I’m excited to see what she does next and how she grows as a storyteller from here. The play asks big philosophical questions without concrete answers, and it certainly sparks discussion about what we can do to be more responsible citizens of the world. If it’s too late for Bryan, Cassie, and Stella to save the Earth, how much time do we have left?
Walden is part of the Re:Emerge Season at the Harold Pinter Theatre and runs through 12 June. Walden is being shown in cinemas nationwide from 8 September, with more information here.