In amongst the joy this week of people I love finally getting the vaccine – at last! – I’ve been thinking a lot about resources, and the ways in which we like to hoard them in a pile and sit on them, like scaly and highly Covid-19-resistent dragons. The map of the world’s most vaccinated countries is also, with some exceptions, a map of the ones with another money and political heft to throw around in the battle to secure the precious jab. But there’s been little political will to share them: we’re closing borders, not reaching across them, even though Covid-19 will only be defeated when it’s under control everywhere in the world. There’s a niceness and cosiness to having your needs provided for, and battening down the hatches as the storm rages outside. Successive lockdowns have made that sense not just comforting, but morally righteous.
Amy Berryman’s debut play is set in a cabin in the woods, the hackneyed setting of any number of dystopias and horror films. Outside, a fierce battle for resources is being waged. Sri Lanka is under water, and millions of climate refugees are searching for shelter and food. Stella (Gemma Arterton) listens to this news on the radio from the safety of her eco-retreat, replete with bounteous vegetable patch, and is a little rattled by it, perhaps, but she’s more worried about her estranged twin sister coming to visit. Her boyfriend Bryan (Fehinti Balogun), whose idea it was to retreat to this wooden eco-idyll, isn’t quite as bothered: he just seems happy to have someone new to try out his homebrews on.
The first act of Walden felt like the first act of a play I really, really wanted to see. Stella’s sister Cassie (Lydia Wilson) turns out to be a NASA employee who’s successfully experimenting with growing crops in space, ready for humanity’s mass migration away from this fucked up planet – she’s the star graduate of the programme her twin Stella crashed out of. And Bryan is an EA, aka an Earth Activist who believes everyone should ultra-minimise their carbon emissions (his screen-rejecting eco-smugness is wittily observed) in order to save the planet they’ve already got. Somewhat predictably, what follows is a battle for Stella’s soul, as she’s torn between the scientific-utopianism she was raised on and the eco-warriorism she’s since found solace in. But although it’s an expected battle, it’s also an exciting one, full of ironies and hypocrisies. Does anyone really get the moral high ground, when it’s billionaires will be the first to live in the new space colonies, but it’s also inhabitants of the Global North who are able to safely retreat away from the impact of climate change?
There’s a smartly-drawn, zinging tension between these three; Stella is acutely aware of being a failure in her sisters’ eyes, Cassie craves her twin’s approval just as much, however successful she might be, and Bryan is just increasingly frustrated with tiptoing around this emotionally-freighted guest. As she deftly sketches the faultlines of the world beyond the cabin’s bounds, Berryman sets up what feels like an elaborate set of dominoes, ready to tumble: identical twins, a crucial decision about whether or not to move to Mars, gestured-at past traumas. But, instead of letting them topple, she just lets them stand, like trees in the forest beyond.
I guess I expected the cabin and the sturdy Western assumptions it was built on to collapse into a toxic sludge of guilt, or for something nasty to creep its way out of the woods, or for the kind of Shakespearean shenanigans involving identical twins to ensue… Instead, it all stays firmly in the register of the “middle-class-people-chew-over-grievances-from-the-past” type of play that Western drama is so very good at.
And this play’s characters don’t have enough complexities to make that satisfying: Fehinti Balogun feels a bit underused as the loyal-if-tetchy boyfriend, Gemma Arterton is highly strung in a vaguely overly-polished way, and Lydia Wilson gives the odd flash of exciting psychopathy that never finds an outlet. The tensions between them never get close to blowing the roof off designer Rae Smith’s cabin, which would make a killing on Air BnB with its homespun decor and beautiful sense of rootedness in the earth, all bound over with tall trees and bordered with the optimism of beautifully real-feeling sprouting plants and vegetables.
So yes, this play didn’t administer a potent shot of biofuel to my rusted over brain. It gestures to issues of global inequality but ultimately used them as a dramatically-hued backdrop to a rather muted family drama, rather than showing the climate crisis will, ultimately, be so all-pervading that (much like the pandemic) retreating away and opting out of this global problem won’t be an option. But it transported me somewhere. And how very demanding of me to expect more, as one of the few consumers of that currently-in-very-short-supply resource, tickets to new plays!
A sense of place, of the kind of world-building that transports you, is what I’ve been craving after sheltering indoors throughout the long and chilly spring (where’s global warming when you need it, I would say, if it wouldn’t mark me out as one of the complacent monsters who got us in this mess). And perhaps at another time, and in another place, this story of blinkered hunkering-down and altruism will get its messier second act.
Walden is on at Harold Pinter Theatre until 21st June. More info and tickets here.