As usual, I discover that Mrs Chrisparkle and I are one of the few people never to have read Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void, nor seen the film, nor even heard of it. For someone who likes to think they have their finger on the cultural pulse, I do sometimes wonder at my own ignorance. Anyway, you, gentle reader, will already know this is an extraordinary true-life account of mountaineer Joe’s very near-death experience as he survived in a glacier with a broken leg with neither food, water nor company for three days on the Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes in 1985. All I knew was that it was a book, written by and about the central character, inspired by his experience. I did not know that it was 100% factual; I thought perhaps it was part true-life, part fiction. So, when everyone else in the theatre knew that, somehow, at the end of the play, he would survive… I didn’t.
To take a book like this and recreate it on a stage takes true vision and bravery, and the whole creative team of writer David Greig, director Tom Morris, designer Ti Green, lighting designer Chris Davey, composer Jon Nicholls and movement director Sasha Milavic Davies have done an extraordinary job of bringing the story to life without actually having to take us to a perilous part of Peru. You very much get the impression of this being a stage representation of a Hollywood Adventure Blockbuster; characters helplessly half-suspended from a hostile snow-covered mountain, with the wind and the rain pounding against them, and, just like you would in the movies, you find yourself chewing your fingers with tension to see how they’re going to get out of this situation – if they can.
Much of what happens in the play takes place inside Joe Simpson’s head – even if we don’t realise it at the time – so the lines between reality and hallucination are thoroughly blurred. The use of humdrum day-to-day items to represent aspects of the mountain terrain – chairs, pub trays, a Gents sign, even a juke-box, help merge the ordinary with the extraordinary, to create a fascinating contrast. The staging and ideas are very inventive – for example, we both loved the use of peanuts as models! Tom Morris’ direction keeps us guessing on the finer details of the story right until the very end; and David Greig has found a way of staging a Scottish pub alongside a Peruvian mountain, with great delicacy and insight; he’s also fleshed out some fascinating characters, and given them some great lines.
Ti Green’s central masterpiece – her abstract impression of a mountain and glacier, constructed as a floating frame with white paper and material fixed to it – occupies your mind superbly as you wonder how on earth anyone could navigate through it. One truly thrilling effect is how they have repositioned gravity, so that if anything falls downwards, like a rope, or a man, it actually flies out through the back wall. This plays a marvellous visual trick with your brain and gives you an additional sense of the dangers risked by the mountaineers. Jon Nicholls’ haunting and luscious themes swell in to the action not unlike the dramatic background music in a David Attenborough programme – and Joe Simpson’s own Desert Island Discs choices also make themselves felt at odd moments during the play.
How often have you been to the theatre and said to yourself, well the second half was much better than the first…. It seems to me that basic dramatic structure requires for an escalation in tension, excitement, humour, farce, horror, whatever, to keep our attention and excitement… and as a result you expect a show to get better as it goes on. This was one of those rare occasions when the reverse is true. The sheer drama and theatrical electricity of the portrayal of Joe and Simon’s tackling the Siula Grande, with their death-defying climbing over the mountain and glacier is edge-of-your-seat stuff. Combined with Richard’s thrilling commentary of every step they took, where his microphone becomes more augmented and distorted and more terrifyingly unreal as it goes on, the first act culminates in a truly gripping scene that stays in your mind for ages afterwards. It certainly stopped Mrs C and I having a good night’s sleep that night! So you go into the interval literally speechless at the brilliance you have just witnessed.
Here comes the controversial bit. The downside to this, sadly, is that the second act, which mainly consists of Joe’s resilient attempts to stay alive when there is simply no hope, is quite static and repetitive in comparison, and – it grieves me to say this, because I feel really mean-spirited with such a visionary production – I got bored. So did Mrs C. The man next to me who was riveted in the first act, was fast asleep. I don’t think the extra-long interval helps, as the momentum that had been built up certainly weakens. The fact is, there are only so many times you can watch a man slowly crawl on the floor, screaming in agony and making unintelligible “muguhumptftuwumpf” sounds before you begin to drift off. I understand this is true to the book and to the film; and if the poor man did spend all that time on his own just surviving through sheer determination, then how else can you depict it on stage? But the truth remains that the huge adrenaline surge you get at the end of the first act just dissipates away during the second. So my reaction at the end of the play was simply “all that…. and he lived??” – which Mrs C said was probably one of the least gracious comments ever to be made about someone’s survival against all odds.
However, there are so many positive things about the extraordinary stagecraft of this production that I couldn’t possibly be grumpy about it. And all the performances are of suitably epic, or near-epic, proportions. Josh Williams gives a wonderfully optimistic and adventurous performance as Joe; you can just imagine that he would be the kind of charismatic guy who would talk you into an adventure where you risk your life just for the hell of it. He doesn’t hold back on expressing the pain and anguish of his injury and his plight. And how on earth does he get in and out of that Act Two sleeping bag without us noticing? Some pretty amazing stage magic there!
There’s also an excellent performance by Fiona Hampton as his sister Sarah; belligerently refusing to pander to the bland sympathies of Joe’s mountaineering mates, mockingly acting as the voice in Joe’s head encouraging him to find the strength to survive. Patrick McNamee’s Richard is a mild, well-meaning, unambitious dawdler who knows he’s at the bottom of the pecking order, happy to man base-camp if that’s what the alpha males want; and Edward Hayter’s Simon is also keen as mustard in the planning and mountaineering scenes, until it all goes horribly wrong, when he retreats into his shell. I did feel, however, that he underplayed the moral dilemma of the “cutting the rope” problem. It’s a fascinating question; you have a choice of both dying, or of saving yourself only – what do you do? If ever a play had a Big Issue, this is the one. But I felt that his remorse, such as it was, was no more than if he’d put the bins out late. I’m sure there should have been a lot of angst there that I just didn’t get.
If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know that I always prefer a brave failure to a lazy success. I wouldn’t by any means describe this as a failure because there is so much going for it – and its bravery is beyond question. You should definitely go and see it for yourself and make your own mind up. After it closes in Northampton on October 20th, the tour continues in 2019 to Edinburgh, Perth, Inverness and Hong Kong.
Production photos by Geraint Lewis