Walden

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.

Reviews by Paul F Cockburn

Multiple Venues

Nests

★★★
Dundee Rep Theatre / Macrobert Arts Centre

The Yellow on the Broom

★★★
Underbelly, Bristo Square

Tom Neenan: It's Always Infinity

★★★★
Assembly George Square Studios

Police Cops in Space

★★★★★
Gilded Balloon Rose Theatre

Rik Carranza: Still a Fan

★★★★
Gilded Balloon Rose Theatre

Marmite

★★★★

Performances

Location

The Blurb

“My purpose in going to Walden was not to live cheaply or dearly, but to live deliberately.”

On 4th July 1845, Henry David Thoreau walked into the woods near his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts and decided to stay. He found a spot next to a lake called Walden Pond and built a hut. For the next two years he tried to live entirely by his own resources.

Walden, Thoreau’s account of his “experiment in simple living”, is one of the most extraordinary and unclassifiable books ever written, with huge contemporary resonance. It is a meditation on self-sufficiency, the individual’s relationship with the environment and the desire to ‘live deliberately’.

First produced in 2009, Magnetic North’s adaptation was hugely popular with audiences and received a string of four and five star reviews. The production is performed in an intimate, in-the-round setting: 12 beautifully crafted benches made from American cedar join together to create an arena for the audience and actor, with just 40 audience members able to attend each performance.