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Touching The Void

David Grieg (adapted from the book by Joe Simpson)
Bristol Old Vic, Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh, Royal & Derngate, Northampton and Fuel Theatre
Bristol Old Vic
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Touching The Void is the epic and almost tragic true story of two climbers’ successful, but nearly fatal, attempt to climb the west face of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes.

Joe Simpson and Simon Yates managed the summit in 1985 but on the descent Simpson slipped, smashing his leg, knee and ankle. As weather and light conditions worsened, Yates inadvertently lowered Simpson over an ice cliff.

With Yates unable to see or hear Simpson and Simpson unable to climb back up the rope, the former holds on to the injured man until the snow around him starts to give way. Faced with almost certain death for both of them if he loses his position, Yates makes the critical decision to cut the rope, giving at least one of them some chance to make their way out. Miraculously, Simpson survived the fall, but finds himself balanced on an ice shelf in a crevasse.

Based on the original book by Joe Simpson, this is the moment where writer David Greig and director Tom Morris begin their story. Played by Josh Williams, Simpson’s hollow calls for Yates echo from deep in the crack in the mountain to produce a moment of utter hopelessness and complete loneliness, making a profoundly moving start.

From here, the plot flashes forward and backwards as Simpson hallucinates under the duress of severe pain and extreme exhaustion. The imagined scenes of his wake or flashbacks to mountain cafés where the two meet allow the backstory and characters to be established. In one moment, Simpson’s older sister, Sarah (Fiona Hampton), his tormentor from childhood, rages at the towering Yates (Edward Hayter), struggling to comprehend the risks the climbing community seek out. In another, she becomes the main provocateur, one of the inner voices in his head, urging him on while his body and mind start to collapse.

Credit to Bristol Old Vic and its co-producers to tackle the challenge of staging a production which contrasts the enormity of the practical and physical challenges of two unsupported climbers, travelling thousands of miles to climb 21,000 feet, in some of the most extreme conditions on the planet, against the struggles of one desperate and lonely man to put one step in front of another. Survival on the outside requires on keeping a grip on the mountain and your partner. Alone at the dark bottom of a deep hole, survival relies on keeping a grip on your mind.

The fragile ice sheets that need to be traversed or climbed are dramatically recreated by Ti Green’s imaginative lattice-work of suspended criss-crossed bars occasionally patched together with flimsy paper. Putting in great physical performances, Williams and Hayter variously hang, traverse or put their feet through the paper-thin ice.

Jon Nicholls’s sound effects reproduce the weather and the agonising breaks of Simpson’s leg. Missing however is a sense of the immense scale of the task ahead of the climbers. These mountains are some of the highest in the world and Simpson’s fall was 150 feet. Yet this suspended ice sheet has little height and mostly held close to the floor of the stage. The immensity of their achievements is diluted and the falls oddly static, losing much drama which seems a curious decision.

Only when the gap-year traveller, Richard Hawking (Patrick McNamee), explains their task using peanuts on a wall or in the final scene where the entire backdrop is taken up by an enormous photograph of the mountain range can we feel the climbers’ insignificance.

The end of the first half brings us to the moment where the play starts. Both Hayter and Williams manage the tricky balance of making their characters likeable yet remote and unknowable. Light-hearted relief is provided by Hampton’s Sarah and in particular McNamee’s gap-year traveller, Hawking.

The first half lends itself to explaining the technical aspects of climbing and extreme survival which feels a little repetitive and heavy handed at times and leaves you a little impatient for the main story to get going. Perhaps due to the difficulties of portraying the immense technical aspects of climbing, the production relies heavily on exposition, so much so it too often doesn’t quite manage to untether itself from the literal and leave the page.

Contrast this to the second half where the audience is mesmerised watching a man doing nothing more than struggling to make one infinitesimally small step after another for over an hour. Here, director and writer get it all right and the results are as amazing as the story itself.

Reviewer: Joan Phillips