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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows. Until things return to normal we review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.

Cinema Release  Autumn 2021

Amy Berryman's play had a limited run at the Harold Pinter Theatre earlier this year and has now been recorded for showing in cinemas. It is an emotional personal drama and also a play of ideas, and serves both of its aims remarkably well, engaging both heart and mind.

Berryman's premise is the very opposite of what Hollywood calls High Concept – that is, summarisable in a brief phrase (“Like Rocky only he's a wrestler”). So bear with some introduction.

In a near future, perhaps the end of this century, everything that has been going wrong with the earth – global warming, terrorism, tsunamis, famine, and the rest – has gone even wronger. Those who think about it are divided into two camps, some still determined to save the earth through conservation and de-industrialisation, while others want to give up and move humanity elsewhere.

The first group live simply in the woods, while the second have already established a colony on the Moon and are planning one on Mars.

With me so far? Twin sisters were raised to be scientists and astronauts, but Stella (Gemma Arterton) washed out of NASA and lives in Colorado with her save-the-earth boyfriend Bryan (Fehiuti Balogun). Her sister Cass (Lydia Wilson) has just returned from a full year on the Moon and is scheduled for a lifetime emigration to Mars.

And here the play begins. You can see what's coming.

There are emotional scenes and debates of principle between every permutation of two and among all three together. The sisters dig up old rivalries and resentments and accuse each other of betrayal and abandonment.

Bryan and Cass argue theory while also fighting for ownership of Stella. Each of the three has moments of being torn between what they feel they should do and what they want to do, wavering in their commitment to their philosophical positions and life decisions.

And in the able hands of playwright Berryman, director Ian Rickson and the three actors, it all rings true and all matters. The dangers inherent in any play of ideas and debate – that the characters lose their humanity and become just mouthpieces for their positions, or that the debate sequences stop the action dead – are thoroughly avoided.

Berryman recognises that people can think rationally and feel passionately, even about two different things, at the same time. So, for example, the fact that Stella envies her sister's success does not reduce her argument that going to Mars is wrong, but energises it. Cass's devotion to science cannot be separated from her devotion to Stella, even when it seems to pull her away.

Impeccable performances by all three actors make it clear that every thought is shaped by emotion and every emotion tempered by clear thinking - and that is very dramatic.

The figure of Bryan is more of a plot device than a fully developed character, and the science fiction element, while effectively presenting the debate in extreme terms, also slightly trivialises it.

But Walden is a play that is actually About Something while also making you feel as well as think.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  Walden 2021