Touching The Void
David Greig, adapted from the book by Joe Simpson
Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh, Bristol Old Vic, Royal & Derngate Northampton and Fuel
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
If there is one factor that is universal to all of mankind, it is the instinct for survival, no matter the difficulty and danger. Few modern tales can boast a more simple yet incredible example of this than the gruelling ordeal of Joe Simpson on the slopes of the Peruvian mountain Siula Grande. Dragging himself for days through caverns and over rock and plain, with broken bones and frostbitten fingers.
Audiences are likely aware of the story from the much lauded documentary of the same name. David Greig's adaptation eschews such a meat and potatoes approach and instead recaptures the horror of the story by relaying it through the form of a fever dream. As Joe lies broken in an ice-cave, alone and injured, the action instead is led by his older sister, Sarah, drinking heavily at his wake and demanding an explanation from his companions Simon and Richard.
Through this artifice, the pair lead her on a journey through the events leading up to and including the fateful expedition up the never-before bested western face of Siula Grande. It's a clever narrative trick as, through Sarah, the audience is filled in on the backstories of the three men, the difficulties and dangers of alpine mountaineering and some of the climbing equipment and terminology pertinent to the tale.
While such stories are often the subjects of documentaries or biopic films, media which lend themselves to sweeping vistas and vivid imagery, this retelling shows that they are equally fit for the stage. There's a boldness to the decision to reimagine the story against an almost completely darkened stage, with only a few props and a vast hanging skeletal metal structure to act as a physical and also visual embodiment of the mountain itself. Throughout the performance, this jagged and ghastly parapet serves as a backdrop, a platform, a climbing frame and more whilst always acting as a simple and effective reminder of the danger of the mountain: all jagged angles, shreds of white paper and shining steel, like the story, as vicious as it is beautiful. There's a deathly seriousness to it, much like the hooded and faceless parka-wearing stagehands, flitting across the stage like ghosts of dead climbers they are clearly meant to represent.
That same dark, serious tone luckily doesn't fall to all parts of the production, which is definitely a blessing, as the laddish joviality that pervades the script fits the situation far better than a spiral of doom and gloom. It's a testament to the cast and direction that the surprising amount of humour in the play never threatens to take away from the bleakness of the subject matter and the seriousness of the predicament.
As the play was inspired by Joe Simpson's books, it's clear to see that his personality is reflected not only through Josh Williams's portrayal of him, but also through the other characters as well. It's clear that the personalities are built of the same heightened reality that the dreamlike context creates. This is particularly evident in the case of Patrick McNamee, who plays Richard, a character for whom we are told more than once Joe has less time as a non-climber. As a result, he comes across as far more of a strange and quirky enthusiast, gleefully interested but somewhat distracted, when not making thoughtless comments or breaking into guitar renditions of songs by The Pogues.
Whereas Richard serves more as comic relief and a useful foil for some of the necessary technical exposition, Fiona Hampton's Sarah carries the brunt of the emotional weight of the play, burning with a fierce resolution to find answers that fades into an encouraging determination in the play's latter half. Conversely, Williams's arc fittingly inverts that, as his consciousness and resolve grow stronger, his part in proceedings takes the fore, although never entirely banishing the hallucinatory pub and wake imagery from the stage.
The fourth actor, Edward Hayter, has the slightly more thankless role of redeeming and humanising the actions and decisions of Simon Yates. It's to his credit that the complexity and very human nature of the part never allows him to feel anything other than authentic and will undoubtedly leave audiences as angrily split on what they'd do in the situation as the climbing community has been since the incident.
If there is a down side to the production, it's in the musical choices, which although neatly fitting with the pub jukebox motif, and Simpson's real account of being unable to get Boney M's, "Brown Girl in the Ring" out of his head for some hours, feel a little flat at times. They also blare and distract and once or twice drowned out the dialogue of the actors. A stylistic choice with an understandable aim, but an execution that hampered more than it eased.
That aside, Touching the Void is an incredible achievement in transportation and evocation through theatre. It shows the very essence of the triumph of the human spirit, as well as the raw animalistic desire to survive. From its first moments of isolated darkness to the staggering magnitude of accomplishment seen in the the final moments, it soars above the precipice of everyday theatre.