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Faced with the pressures of busy modern living, who hasn’t thought about running away to the country to get away from it all? Henry David Thoreau certainly did. Back in 1845, the American writer decided to dabble in an “experiment in simple living” – building a hut next to a lake called Walden Pond in rural Massachusetts, where he would stay for two years living entirely on his own resources.
Thoreau’s desire to ‘live deliberately’ became one of the most extraordinary and hard-to-pigeon-hole books ever written. It also happened to inspire Magnetic North theatre company’s Artistic Director, Nicholas Bone, to adapt a play based on Thoreau’s experiences: Walden. This was back in 2008; running for 70 performances, winning awards and receiving awards along the way. Now, Bone has decided to resurrect his play as part of the Hidden Door Festival. Will you go down to the woods today..?
- So, Nicholas, why revisit the show now?
“It’s 6 years since we last did the show and I’ve been looking for a context to do it again. At its heart is a question about how we live our lives; about taking time to assess what we do and why we do it, and to see if there might be different ways to live it. Although it was published in 1854, it remains incredibly relevant: at one point, Thoreau says ‘we think it essential to talk through a telegraph and travel at 30 miles an hour, but whether we should live like baboons or like men is less certain’ – speeds might have increased since he wrote that, but the question still remains.”
- Have you made any significant changes since it was last performed?
“Not significant, but in returning to it with Cameron Mowat – who performed it in 2010 – we’re finding things that we hadn’t found before. We’re both older and possibly wiser, the world has changed and we have different priorities in our lives now so we’re seeing new things. The heart of the show – a simple, direct way of telling a story – remains the same.”
- It’s quite possible a lot of people feel like escaping busy city living for a more simple life. Wasn’t Thoreau just lacking in balance? Don’t we all need to retreat to the country once in a while, to stay sane?
“Maybe he was, but he did something people often talk about but rarely do. After 2 years, he decided to return home: ‘I left Walden for as good a reason as I went there’, he says, and we’ve been looking more closely at what changed for him in those two years. He claims that he only felt lonely once the whole time he was there, but also talks a lot about how much he valued the visits friends made. There’s a beautiful description of a hawk he watches flying above him shortly before he decided to go home – we’ve made this the pivotal moment in the story.”
- What initially drew you to the story in the first place? Self-sufficiency is obviously a dominant theme. Don’t we all rely on someone or something else to keep us going?
“I found the book in a second-hand book sale – it had a lovely 1930s cover with a woodcut on it. I read the first page and it hooked me. There is a beautiful, understated poetry to his writing, and we’ve tried to retain that while adapting it to the stage. Thoreau was admired as a public speaker, which helps as the sense of that is in his prose. Self-sufficiency is a dominant theme, and he explores it in different ways – as both a physical and philosophical thing. I think he’s suggesting finding balance in our lives – one of the reasons he gives for his ‘experiment in simple living’ is that he wants to see what it’s like to have ‘2 or 3 things to worry about, not hundreds or thousands’. He enjoyed a solitary kind of self-sufficiency, but other versions are also available.”
“Someone told me months
later that they still remembered
the incredible lighting change
when winter arrived”
- Robert Louis Stevenson judged Thoreau’s advocacy of living alone in natural simplicity, away from modern society, to be “womanish solicitude” and “something unmanly” – a sign of the times?
“Perhaps RLS was being provocative? I think he’d have recognised the two sides of Thoreau’s nature – at one point he talks about seeing a woodchuck and wanting to grab it and devour it raw ‘for the wildness it represents’, and at another point elegantly quotes Eastern philosophy. Nowadays, self-sufficiency a la Bear Grylls is seen as intensely manly – rather boringly so, in my opinion: I much prefer Thoreau’s more existential take.”
- Many men, however, do like to live alone. Wasn’t Thoreau just an introspective bachelor boy who enjoyed his own company?
“Absolutely – he admits he prefers his own company to other people’s – but that doesn’t invalidate his experience. At the time he chose to go to the woods he’d been through a series of traumatic events: his brother had recently died and the woman he loved had made it clear she didn’t reciprocate his feelings. He was 27 and well-educated – as John Updike says ‘he was old enough to know he should have achieved more than he had.’ Going to the woods was his last ditch attempt to become a writer.”
- The story symbolises human development. Have we developed much in the last 150 years?
“We’ve progressed, but I’m not sure how much we’ve developed. Thoreau’s lasting contribution to the world was the idea of civil disobedience and how it can be used to change society, and that has certainly changed things for the better. When I hear Donald Trump talking, though, I wonder what on earth Thoreau would have made of him. I think Thoreau’s plea is for us to examine ourselves in order to come to a better understanding of the world.”
- The show is set in the round. Is this to make things more intimate? To give everyone a more ’rounded’ view of how Thoreau lived?
“It’s to bring the audience as close as possible to the story – it makes it a very democratic experience, no-one has a better view than anyone else. It also emphasises the theatricality of the performance – it literally could not work without the audience there: there is one lighting state and no pre-recorded sound, the staging is as simple as can be and the audience have to contribute their imagination to complete the telling of the story. The very first time we did it in 2008, someone told me months later that they still remembered the incredible lighting change when winter arrived and wondered how we’d done it: in fact, there had been no lighting change, they had filled in the gap we left for them.”
- What do you hope new audiences will take away from watching the show?
“I hope it will intrigue them, I hope it’ll raise some questions about what their own values are, and whether they want to change them. I hope it will make them want to go and read Thoreau. I hope it will make them think that theatre doesn’t always have to have lots of scenery and big effects to move them.”
- What’s up next for you? Anything we should know about?
“We’re working with Rob Drummond on a new show for next year. He and I are both atheist sons of the clergy and we’re adapting Edmund Gosse’s book ‘Father and Son’ as a play. Gosse was a poet who grew up in an intensely religious household and could only write about it years later when his father had died – we’re weaving his story around contemporary experiences of extreme faith and loss of faith.”
Walden, Hidden Door Festival, Old Lighting Depot, King’s Stables Road, Edinburgh, Today – Wed 1 Jun, 6.30pm and 8.30pm, Tickets: Click here
Words: Barry Gordon