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Touching the Void – Reaching new peaks.
The theatre has reached thrilling new heights in Tom Morris’ extraordinary production of Joe Simpson’s 1988 best-selling memoir Touching The Void. David Greig’s stage adaptation of the book has just opened in London’s West End, after first airing at the Bristol Old Vic, and going on to do a tour.
It tells the story of mountaineer Tom Morris’ incredible, against all odds survival after a horrific fall, whilst climbing the Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes with fellow climber Simon Yates. Having joyously reached the peak via the never conquered before west face of the summit, they were on the way down in extreme weather conditions, when Tom fell and broke his leg, Simon initially managed to lower him down the face but was unable to continue and had to make the horrendous decision to cut the rope in order to save his own life. Unable to retain contact, he believed Tom was dead and reluctantly made his way back to base camp. Tom was, in fact, alive and had fallen into a deep crevasse. When he realised he had been left he decided to make his own way back; it was only his extraordinary fortitude and pure determination in the face of death, which drove him to crawl, starving and dehydrated for three long agonising days to safety.
It was difficult to imagine a mountaineering story, especially one which has already had been so well documented by Kevin MacDonald’s 2003 documentary transferring to the stage, however remarkably with the combination of Morris’s direction, Greig’s excellent script and Ti Green’s inventive set it makes the transition exceptionally well. The Siula Grande is represented by a giant rugged triangular climbing structure with textural paper panels which are stepped through and hacked at with pickaxes, this reaches the height of the theatre’s proscenium arch. Snowstorms and Chris Davey’s evocative lighting adds to dramatic effect and provide a sense of the isolation. Other scenes are set in a bar beneath the mountain which is simply symbolized by wooden tables and chairs, and stagehands dressed in orange hooded jackets fit for the arctic.
Josh Williams did a splendid job as Tom; he has to spend most of the time hanging precariously from the jagged mountain structure whilst moaning and grunting, to his credit he kept it up to no avail.
For the purposes of this production, enters Tom’s bold sister Sarah (Fiona Hampton) who acts as his guardian angel and driving force, both egging him on and beating his broken limb in order to keep him going. She is seen at first mourning his loss to the sounds of Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ on the pub jukebox. Her disbelief in his passing gives a clever theatrical device for her to be by Tom’s side as well as led through the narrative by Simon (very believably portrayed by Angus Yellowlees) and Richard (amusingly played by Patrick McNamee), a joyously nerdy guitar playing gap year student who is planning to write a book of his travels and hangs out with the climbers at base camp.
Simon tries to enlighten Sarah (and the audience) to the reasons why a climber desires to take such perilous risks (I’m still not convinced) to climb to a mountain’s peak, and there’s a lovely scene in which he takes her on a short adventure up the side of the stage.
The first half of Touching the Void is compelling and rocks along nicely, it’s peppered with humour, mainly courtesy of the straight-talking Richard, and punctuated with Sasha Milavic Davies dynamic movement sequences which act as a flashback devise. It also sets up the landscape of vertiginous drops and dark voids and a good sense of jeopardy. However, the second half struggled to retain the level peril and of horror and without any story to speak of it dragged a bit. But the awe factor kicks in, and Tom’s predicament is ultimately as tense as it is awful, and I came away with a reminder of the sheer wonder of human resilience.
Duke of York’s Theatre,
St Martin’s Lane,
Until February 29th 2020
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