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.

Theatre 2020: Pick of the plays

Here are a just a few of the plays The Man in the Grand Circle has his eye on this year.

Among the star names coming to the London stage are Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke (see above photo) in Anya Reiss’s adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull for the Jamie Lloyd Company at the Playhouse Theatre in March.  Timothee Chalamet and Eileen Atkins appear in 4000 Miles at the Old Vic the following month, while back at the Playhouse Theatre in June is one of my favourite actresses (I’ve been lucky enough to interview her twice), Jessica Chastain, in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.

If you can’t wait that long for your Ibsen fix, then check out Stef Smith’s Nora: A Doll’s House – a “radical” retelling of the story at the Young Vic in February.

For Samuel Beckett fans it’s like Christmas all over again in January. Trevor Nunn directs a triple bill at London’s Jermyn Street Theatre (Krapp’s Last Tape, Eh Joe, The Old Tune) with a cast that includes Niall Buggy, Lisa Dwan, James Hayes and David Threlfall, while over at the Old Vic Alan Cumming, Daniel Radcliffe and Jane Horrocks star in Endgame.

February’s offerings include David Mitchell making his West End debut in Ben Elton’s Shakespearean comedy Upstart Crow at the Gielgud Theatre. I’m also intrigued by Hampstead Theatre’s The Haystack, a thriller by Al Blyth about GCHQ and surveillance.

Those who like their thrillers with a supernatural edge might want to check out The House on Cold Hill, starring Debbie McGee, at The Mill at Sonning in April.

On the National Theatre’s programme I like the look of Lucy Kirkwood’s The Welkin, starring Maxine Peake and Ria Zmitrowicz (opening this month). In April, Thea Sharrock directs  Jack Absolute Flies Again, a new play by Richard Bean and Oliver Chris based on Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals. And in August Josh O’Connor and Jessie Buckley are the star-crossed lovers in Romeo and Juliet.

Talking of unmissable Shakespeare, Cush Jumbo takes on Hamlet at the Young Vic in July.

Further afield, my theatrical sweet tooth is tempted by Quality Street, Northern Broadsides’ revival of JM Barrie’s farce by  which opens in February in Halifax’s Viaduct Theatre and then tours. Barrie’s play was so popular at the time that it gave the chocolates their name.

And there I was trying to give up chocolate this month…

If you missed Laura Wade’s The Watsons at the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2019, be sure to catch it at the Harold Pinter Theatre where it opens in May. This genius trip into the Jane Austen universe owes a lot to Pirandello, as does the title of this play at the Southwark Playhouse in April: Five Characters in Search of a Good Night’s Sleep.

Finally, to the Royal Court for a play (in June) which has quite possibly best title of the year: Purple Snowflakes and Titty Wanks.

Happy New Year!

 

 

Pinter at the Pinter: Landscape / A Kind of Alaska – Harold Pinter Theatre

When he launched his Pinter at the Pinter season, director Jamie Lloyd said he hoped theatregoers would experience something akin collecting vinyl: as they flicked through the playwright’s back catalogue they might stumble across some forgotten gems among the classics.

It’s a good analogy. I like to think of the 11 one-act plays that make up the third section of this Pinter season as tracks on a particularly eclectic LP.

Side One opens with a substantial piece, Landscape, in which Tamsin Greig and Keith Allen play a married couple who seem to be speaking to each other but remain forever disconnected.

I’m used to seeing Greig on stage in more comedic roles, but here she’s pushing the button marked heartbreak. Seated, her voice amplified by a microphone, she describes being on a beach and drawing two figures – “close but not touching” – in the sand. It’s a haunting metaphor for this couple lost in their own narratives.

If that sounds heavy going, there are laughs to be had in some of the shorter works that follow.

I particularly liked God’s District, in which Meera Syal plays a preacher “saving souls” in Putney, while Lee Evans closes the first half with Monologue, an involving piece in which he talks to a jacket hanging on a chair.

There are more delights on Side Two: Evans shines in the hilarious factory-set sketch Trouble in the Works. He even seems to corpse at one point amid the verbal gymnastics.

Tamsin Greig and Keith Allen are back for the closer, A Kind of Alaska. Greig plays Deborah, a woman who has emerged from a coma after 29 years but still thinks she’s 16, while Allen is the doctor who has to break the news that the world she knew has changed utterly. Pinter twists the emotion control up a notch with the arrival of Deborah’s now grown-up sister (Syal).

Not always an easy listen, this is an album worth repeated plays.