15th October 2011, matinée
Inspired by true events, ‘A Walk in the Woods’ is not one of the Tricycle’s famous transcript plays, but it does have a ring of authenticity about it and although it was first performed over twenty years ago, sadly the themes are all too relevant today.
Playwright Lee Blessing reports that he was inspired by reports of US arms negotiator Paul Nitze (whose story you can read here) taking a walk in the woods above Geneva during a break in talks, and his chance meeting with soviet negotiator Yuli Kvitsinsky. The press speculated at the time about the content of their discussions, but Blessing is keen to point out that the play is an exploration rather than any attempt to recreate real events. As he says ‘I was fascinated by these nations putting some of their best people in critically sensitive jobs with the sole intention of letting them fail. It’s hard to find a more existential situation than that’.
Like Polly Sullivan’s set, which skilfully combines impressionistic design and real trees to evoke the forest, the play has quite an artificial structure – the format is a simple two-hander in four acts and the seasons are almost symbolically marked to indicate the passing of time. However, the content of the discussions is organic and idiosyncratic and ultimately resists simple classification.
The play appears to begin by setting up a battle of wits between the older, wiser and more cynical Soviet negotiator Andrey Botvinnik, and the ambitious, extremely earnest US one, Joan Honeyman, who we sense has been ‘parachuted in’ to make a difference. Always slightly playful and insistent that they must be ‘friends’, we can easily believe that Botvinnik is a master at stalling and avoiding the ‘real’ issues. But as the play progresses, we realise that these characters have more in common with each other than they do with their masters, and are indeed kindred spirits.
In this production, the casting of a woman as Joan Honeyman (originally John) works very well and adds to the drama. It seems very plausible that as a woman in a male-dominated environment, she might have to be twice as serious and committed as her male counterparts, with no room for ‘fun’ or friendship. Myriam Cyr captures this cold fervour very well, and her transformation from rational conformity to rebellion (we won’t give away the nature of her ‘crimes’ but a gum wrapper is involved) is fascinating and very entertaining to watch.
Steven Crossley as Botvinnik on the other hand is determined to hold on to his sanity. With a mischievous sense of humour, his opening gambit is to recount a story about teasing the press, on one occasion announcing that the Russian president believed that the survival of the Soviet Union depended on the obliteration of America. His apparently frivolous desire to discuss Minnie Mouse and other aspects of US ‘culture’ is part of a wider desire to hold on to the mundanity that makes us human. He believes that negotiations should take place at the bottom of a missile silo, to keep everyone focused on what they have to lose, and for him Switzerland’s literally rarefied air provides too unreal a setting for negotiations. Crossley brings a compelling air of hard-won wisdom to the role, without preaching.
Blessing has skilfully avoided specific references that would by now make the play seem more dated and because the message is about humanity and the essential nature of individuals and governments, the historical context is almost irrelevant.
Nicolas Kent is clearly intending to go out with a bang – his final season at the Tricycle will culminate in an epic history of the atomic bomb, and Lee Blessing will be one of the authors involved. Here’s something to whet your appetite.