Walden review – Gemma Arterton’s sister act reaches for the stars

Twin sisters with a fractious history are planning a reunion at the start of Amy Berryman’s play. “We have to act happy,” says Stella to her fiance before her twin has arrived, and the anxious statement prepares us for the unfolding drama of sisterly competition and grudge.

But the first in Sonia Friedman’s Re:Emerge series at the Harold Pinter theatre is not just a psychodrama of spiky sisterhood but an original play of ideas that takes in everything from the ethics of space endeavour to climate activism and the pull between duty, ambition and desire.

Stella (Gemma Arterton) is a failed Nasa architect, living an anti-technology life with her fiance, Bryan (Fehinti Balogun), in a near-future American wilderness in which planet Earth is almost entirely depleted. Cassie (Lydia Wilson), meanwhile, is a star astronaut, pushing at the boundaries of habitation on Mars and just returned, triumphant, from a year on the moon.

There is confidently meditative pacing to Ian Rickson’s direction, and Rae Smith’s set shows Stella and Bryan’s life as a rustic idyll with sound design, by Emma Laxton, of distant bird whistles and hoots that build on the susurrating tensions beneath the sisters’ clipped politeness. Arterton and Wilson are excellent at capturing a true-to-life sisterliness that swerves from antagonism and clenched jaws to sudden confidences and giggles.

Several binaries are set up between characters, and some might have been more fully explored. We learn that the sisters’ father was a “Nasa hero” and the idea of hot-housed sisters, placed in a world of contest in which only one could win, is a fascinating one. (Real-life siblings such as the Williams sisters and the Murray brothers come to mind.) Ironies within their relationship are well developed. Cassie feels a duty to be the brilliant astronaut when all she wants is the ordinary life, and love, that her apparently “failed” sister has got, while Stella feels Cassie is living her unfulfilled dream.

Buried resentments are aired and Arterton shines in the more comic moments, but her anger is slightly too huffy and untextured, her nose turned up in pique. Wilson gives a sensitive and nuanced performance but sometimes seems held back by characterisation.

The dynamic between them contains the potential for a bigger emotional explosion that never comes. At times, they are pale comparisons to the three central characters in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Here is another sister called Stella and an interloping sister in Cassie who, while not as vulnerable as Blanche, is going through her own unravelling. Their clashes never quite rip the skin open and we wish for a messier and more devastating effect.

The play’s climate debate is interesting. Bryan is an “Earth advocate” – the next level up from ecowarrior – who abjures screens and regards space travel as “colonisation”. Our duty, he says, is to save the planet rather than looking for somewhere else to go.

Cassie is initially horrified, but where we might have seen a battle of values played out, a chemistry develops between them that seems too much like a plot device. Bryan as a whole remains intriguing but ancillary, wavering in the large gap between dangerous luddite and enlightened climate hero.

None of it takes away from the intelligence and soulfulness of the play. Berryman quotes Thoreau’s Walden at the start of her script: “Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads,” and both sisters, having been trained to reach for the stars, come to realise that happiness is right here, on Earth.

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