On 4th July 1845 – Independence Day, suitably enough – the young Henry David Thoreau went into the woods at Walden Pond, near the town of Concord, Massachusetts, and lived there for two years, two months and two days. He built his own home – a hut measuring 3m x 4.5m (10 x 15 feet) – growing his own food and generally trying to live, as he put it, “not… cheaply or dearly,” but “deliberately”.
Thanks to Cameron Mowat’s gentle, unforced performance and delivery, we get a real sense of Thoreau’s oh-so-American idealism as he rolls up his shirt sleeves to get started.
He certainly wasn’t a hermit; Thoreau welcomed visitors of all kinds to his woodland home, as well as the discussions they inspired. Nor was he completely beyond the noises of human civilisation; he regularly visited Concord and was well within earshot of a nearby railway line. Nevertheless, Thoreau believed that we needed to simplify our lives in order to better understand ourselves and grow, spiritually; that our days – and this was back in the mid-19th century, remember – had become too focused on the noise of business and geographical expansion. Unsurprisingly, his words still resonate with many people today.
Nicholas Bone’s stage adaptation of Thoreau’s book, for his own Magnetic North theatre company, remains a timely work – seven years after its first Edinburgh performances. Bone’s chosen setting – designed in conjunction with the artist and architect duo known as Sans façon – is simple enough; an oval formed from two curved bench seats, defining a performance space empty apart from a small pile of fine sand. It is into this space that Cameron Mowat enters – having previously sat down with the audience. This is a back-to-basics idea of theatre; there’s little in theatrical props or “business” to detract from the spoken words, while the audience are all clearly visible to each other as well as the actor.
And what words; you might not necessarily agree with either Thoreau’s observations or logic – his innate distrust of continent-spanning industry and commerce doesn’t necessarily chime with the mass-produced books without which he believed no “cottage” would be complete. Thoreau’s approach is an almost instinctual intertwining of detailed observations of the world around him, his own personal memories and experiences, and an awareness of history and symbolic meanings. Thanks to Cameron Mowat’s gentle, unforced performance and delivery, we get a real sense of Thoreau’s oh-so-American idealism as he rolls up his shirt sleeves to get started.
On the whole the production works very well, although the hard wood seating for the audience grows more uncomfortable with every passing minute – though perhaps that’s deliberate. Significantly, Bone’s adaptation of Thoreau doesn’t linger too much on the man’s eventual reasons for leaving his lake-side hut and returning to sojourn among civilisation; instead, the final emphasis is on the value of living much more in the moment, and looking for the potential in ourselves rather than elsewhere.