Walden – First night report from the Harold Pinter Theatre

In the week that England’s theatres reopened, one of the most anticipated events was the world premiere of Walden, Amy Berryman’s debut play starring Gemma Arterton.

I was in the audience at the very first performance on Saturday 22 May. Here’s my report:

Before the play, the ritual:

Gemma Arterton, Fehinti Balogun and Lydia Wilson arrive like ghosts on the dimly lit stage.  Holding burning sticks, they draw smoke circles in the air around each other and the perimeter of the set.

It is a symbolic moment of cleansing that signals fresh start at the end of a dark chapter of theatre history.

“I believe this is the beginning of the great new emergence,” is how producer Sonia Friedman phrased it a few moments earlier as she addressed the first night audience, alongside director Ian Rickson, at the Harold Pinter Theatre.

Friedman recalled how in March last year she’d had to close her production of Uncle Vanya at the Pinter as the pandemic took hold.

“We thought it would just be for two weeks, then four weeks, then six weeks at the most…”

And some 14 months later, here we are.

Berryman’s play has an intriguing premise. It is set in future where the planet is in a state of environmental catastrophe. There are tsunamis and “climate refugees”. Even a bottle of wine with a real cork is deemed a luxury. 

In a remote cabin in the woods, former NASA architect Stella (Arterton) and her partner Bryan (Balogun) await the arrival of Stella’s estranged twin sister Cassie (Wilson), a NASA botanist who has just returned to Earth after a year on the Moon.  

While she has been exploring ways for the human race to colonise other planets, Bryan is an Earth Advocate – part of a movement that seeks a greener, more simple way of life here on Earth.

In a series of intense encounters between the three characters, the play explores the themes of sibling rivalry, isolation and survival. There is much that resonates with the here and now.

With atmospheric sound design by Emma Laxton, this absorbing human drama keeps its feet firmly on Earth but has its eyes on the stars.

Walden, part of the RE:Emerge season at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London, is on until 12 June.