Saturday, 22 August 2009

Edinburgh Festival Fringe: Walden


Henry David Thoreau’s writings, especially Walden, his account of living in a cabin in the woods, have achieved iconic status amongst wilderness lovers and conservationists. His writings in the mid nineteenth century marked a transition point in attitudes to the wild. In Wilderness and the American Mind (essential reading for anyone interested in the development of ideas about wilderness, even if not American) Roderick Nash says “Thoreau led the intellectual revolution that was beginning to invest wilderness with attractive rather than repulsive qualities”. (Of course this had started earlier in Europe with the Romantic Movement and writers like Rousseau and Wordsworth).

Walden is an unusual book, a mix of autobiography, natural history and philosophy. Nothing much actual happens. Thoreau builds a simple cabin, grows beans, goes fishing and, mostly, watches the pond and the woods, observing the water and the wind, the birds and the animals, and meditates on every aspect of human existence. This does not seem a good basis for theatre so I was curious when I heard that Edinburgh company Magnetic North were putting on a production at the Fringe. Adapted from the book by Magnetic North’s artistic director Nicholas Bone the play is a solo performance by Ewan Donald. The setting is unconventional and designed so the actor can see and be in contact with all members of the audience. Indeed, he starts out as a member of the audience. Curved wooden benches form an oval that is open at each end. A pile of sand sits in the middle of the oval. With no rows of seats and no separate stage the feeling is one of community and closeness. Wherever you sit you are looking across at other members of the audience and never far from the actor.

Speaking lines from Walden the actor playing Thoreau (the notes for the play say “the actor should not think that he or she is playing Thoreau himself” but they clearly are with lines like “I borrowed an axe and went down to the woods by Walden Pond”) addresses the audience some of the time and at others appears lost in a reverie, talking to himself or pausing to reflect. Using simple props – a wooden staff, the pile of sand, the benches – Ewan Donald acts out Thoreau’s life at Walden. The sand becomes the rows of beans and then the surface of the pond. The staff becomes a hoe and then the paddle of his boat as he strikes it against the end of a bench, which has become his boat. There are pauses and periods of silence when the words can sink in and the quiet of the room becomes the silence of solitude and thoughtfulness. The performance is slow, contemplative and immensely powerful. There in a room in the heart of a busy city the wilds are conjured by the words of Thoreau and the intensity of Ewan Donald’s acting.

Walden left me feeling relaxed and peaceful. Emerging from the theatre onto the noisy, crowded Edinburgh streets was a shock. Somehow the traffic, the buildings, the din, the smells, the hardness of urban straight lines didn’t seem real and I drifted through them towards the railway station. Walden was my last show of the 2009 Edinburgh festivals and I was returning home to my house in the woods and fields. After listening to Thoreau’s words it seemed the right thing to do.

Photo info: My old copy of Walden and the script of the Walden production. Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF 50mm 1:1.8 II lens, 1/60 @ f2.5, ISO 1600, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.4

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