FringeReview UK 2021
Directed by Ian Rickson, Designed by Rae Smith and Sound by Emma Laxton, Lighting Design by Azusa Ono, Music by Mark Bradshaw, and Casting Amy Ball. Till TBA
Sonia Friedman’s mixed daring and sure-fire attraction in re-opening her Re-Emerge Season in the West End. Daring’s taking Walden the sci-future debut play by actor-dramatist Amy Berryman. Sure-fire’s two big draws – Gemma Arterton, Ruth Wilson, in this three-hander that tackles a scorched green future. Helps it’s directed by Ian Rickson. Yasmin Joseph’s J’Ouvert and Joseph Charlton’s Anna X also follow after recent Harold Pinter runs.
Arterton’s Stella is a NASA refugee we slowly discover, living with her EA (Earth Advocate) partner Bryan (Fehinti Balogun) in a re-wilded area where many are forlornly fighting back climate change: the USA’s managed 80% reduction of carbon reduction and in this area, there’s no electricity at all. But it’s not enough. Only in this 100 square miles is where you can breathe without a mask, and there’s a deer infestation. Trouble is, the governments think Earth’s finished: time to seek new planets.
You’d not think it’s 2060ish by the décor, as micro-naturalistic as so many contemporary American plays are. Rae Smith’s rendered this the kind of cabin detail you see on American sets, with every fine-grained turn and detail, from unmade sofas to brief exteriors including one encounter by phone with lit rectangles reminiscent of Miriam Beuthner. Emma Laxton supplies a seepage of re-wilded and disturbing intrusions, bird whistles, hoots, calls of the re-wilded animals, as well as the domestic envelope.
But then a tsunami’s killed a million in Sri-Lanka and India’s not taking refugees as they have no fresh water. And that’s the second news item (radio the one electric concession). The first is Stella’s twin sister: lunar-living Cassie (Wilson) has just returned from a year on the moon and is headed straight here. Having grown the first plant there.
Walden’s a complicated clash, not all the one-way urging you’d expect. Berryman asks if the stars are above or in fact under our feet. The name evokes not only Thoreau’s 1854 self-sufficiency polemic Walden, the opening of which the twins’ astronaut father loved quoting (‘Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads’), but the project Stella devised: a terra-forming pod for living on Mars.
And now Cassie’s going to lead it and NASA seems to want Stella back. Both live in the shadow of their father’s unforgiving ambition – not least in giving them their astro-aspirant names. Stella once blacked out and it’s Cassie who’s ended up the star.
This twinship’s lifelong: from the start their futures with their widower father setting them up as eternally competitive: Stella the academic architect, Cassie the one with a late-flowering genius for practical application. They test together to see how identical twins might succeed and fail; in a petri dish as it were.
Then there’s Bryan, who first manages to break all the news he’s not meant to, just before other resentments break in. Cassie it seems has a tendency to take. The duettings that follow hinge on fright and anxiety, mainly for Stella, where the conflicts aren’t simply grained for and against.
Bryan confides to Cassie he accidentally killed his EA brother in a rare drive in a car a year back. Cassie has doubts about leading an expedition from which she’ll never return – and the first one was lost with all hands; Stella’s design has to be different. But it’s Stella straddling EA and NASA who won’t let Cassie off their shared inheritance of dad’s instilled duty. It’s there in every nerve. How Stella broke off a completely co-dependant eight-year relationship with the man who’s taken her place, reluctantly. Bryan’s beginning to feel like ‘band-aid’ – Cassie’s cruelly precise term.
There’s conflict too of course about how NASA has taken all the money that could have sustained the earth and sucked it into space, for a few thousand chosen individuals; the investors quite often. The plebs have a lottery. Berryman details enough of the environmental catastrophe to leave us in no doubt of where she might sympathise, but as she’d also add with Cassie: is it now too late anyway? That’s not where Berryman leaves it though. She likes questions.
Arterton’s edgy affirmation around both Bryan and Cassie, and Wilson’s self-undermined Mission Stella meld in brittle sisterhood, the sort of clipped naturalism enshrined in the rural east. Arterton’s character is the more approachable: warmer, anxious, defensive. She’s also funny and with Balogun’s Bryan, exasperated. The early tensions establishing the destabilising triangle show how this dram might have re-emerged with further revelations, but Berryman’s less interested in effects or theatrics.
Wilson’s the slightly withdrawn Cassie whose character has never formed a relationship of late and will she suggests never do again when there’s only 20 on a mission. This necessarily limits Wilson, but Wilson is strong at evking numb shock and withdrawal, and is here perfectly cast in such a role. They’re both superb at invoking love through suspicion and outright condemnation with love, with a rivalry flowing back and forth as each seems to possess the other’s deepest need.
Balogun’s Bryan is by no means the patsy, even if he’s the transcendently good man, almost guileless by choice, with little to develop and just a few key points to reveal. Balogun responds to warmth in others whilst generating it like a banned radiator. He can also strike truth like a heat-seeking missile.
Berryman joins an increasingly distinguished list of hyper-realists. From Richard Nelson, and his Public Theater school, Amy Schwend and notably with three plays at the National, Annie Baker. There’s the more plot-oriented Amy Herzog, and the more women-and-rural- Audrey Cefaly, and it’s with them Berryman might be hesitantly placed, for now. They tend against intervals and that’s what we experience here.
This means too that the kind of explosion you’d expect isn’t quite coming. Berryman in this 100-minute work goes beyond some of those cited above, providing a resolution with a hovering peripeteia. Hers is a play where the earth itself’s at the cross-planet, and travellers in space have inner and outer choices.