fri 06/12/2019

Touching the Void, Duke of York's Theatre review - not quite high enough | reviews, news & interviews

Touching the Void, Duke of York's Theatre review - not quite high enough

Touching the Void, Duke of York's Theatre review - not quite high enough

David Greig's much-lauded mountaineering story doesn't quite peak

Scaling heights: Angus Yellowlees and Josh Williams in 'Touching the Void'.Bill Knight for theartsdesk

Theatre can touch thousands of lives. But can it compete with the success of a bestselling book? First published in 1988, mountaineer Joe Simpson's Touching the Void has apparently sold more than a million copies, and it's been translated into some 20 languages. It tells the adventure story of how he, and Simon Yates, climbed the Siula Grande peak in the Peruvian Andes in 1985. Last year, David Greig's stage adaptation of the book opened at the Bristol Old Vic, and then went on tour. Now the much-praised show comes into the West End, and it's an odd mix of the vertiginous and the banal.

Set both in bars and on the Siula Grande, the true story has nail-biting moments. Joe and Simon climb the mountain and reach the top, becoming the first climbers to do this via the west face of the summit. So far, so good. On the way down, however, Joe slips and breaks his leg. Simon manages to lower him down, but is forced to drop him into a crevasse. Since they can't communicate, Simon assumes that his climbing partner is dead and gradually makes his way unwillingly back to base camp. Many feet below, Joe realizes that he has been left and decides to crawl, yes crawl, to safety. It takes him three days.

This quintessential tale of survival against the odds is full of compelling detail. From the height of the mountain (more than 20,000 feet) to the length of time it takes for a body to fall down the slopes (18 seconds), this is a play about mountaineering for those who lose puff when they cross a molehill. Thankfully, Greig introduces a female character, Joe's sister Sarah, who as a non-climber can guide us through this world of pick axes, crampons and rope knots. So the first half – when she talks to Simon and Richard, a fictionalised backpacker who joins Joe and Simon on the first leg of their climb – is a delight of humorous nerdism.

In the second half, understandably, the mood darkens. The fact that Joe crawls for days until he reaches base camp is a great testament to human endurance, but it doesn't make very good theatre. There really is a limit to how many grunts, groans and gasps you can listen to before you get sympathy fatigue. Although Greig enlists the help of a hallucination of Sarah to aid her brother, this section is dramatically inert. There's also something irreducibly banal about male heroism and the whole idea of survival at all costs (none of which are actually specified). A play that treats Richard, a naïve and gawky youngster who wants to write, as a comic character while exalting Joe and Simon, real men with big backpacks, as heroes might feel very British, but it also seems a touch reactionary.Of course, Greig, who is also artistic director of the Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh, emphasises humour as well as tension in his writing. And the production, which is directed by Tom Morris, head of the Bristol Old Vic, does have its moments of wonder. At the start, Sarah is made to demonstrate what climbing is all about by miraculously using a couple of wooden chairs and a table; the first appearance of the mountain, designed by Ti Green, is pretty awesome; and some of the climbing sequences are tense and compelling, especially when accompanied by stories of past rock climbers. The idea of mountaineers as unsocial members of a distinct counter-culture is also very appealing.

Since this story has already been filmed by Kevin Macdonald in a documentary with the same name, the stage version depends on its own down-to-earth theatrical vigour to appeal to the audience. Some bits are vertiginously brilliant; others look and feel like drama school exercises. Movement direction by Sasha Milavic Davies helps some scenes, and pulsating music by Jon Nicholls adds to the excitement, while the chords of Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" are always welcome, but the overall production is much too long, and some bits are too repetitive.

If the mountain itself is a character, and the metaphor of the void as implacable nature is thought-provoking, the brunt of the show is carried by the piece's four actors. Josh Williams convincingly plays Joe the determined, while Angus Yellowlees gives Simon a good sense of survival guilt. The moral choice of sacrificing your comrade in order to live comes across strongly. As Richard and Sarah, Patrick McNamee and Fiona Hampton (pictured above at the front) are good value. As an affirmation of the human spirit, Touching the Void is great, but it doesn't quite scale the summit.

There really is a limit to how many grunts, groans and gasps you can listen to before you get sympathy fatigue

rating

Editor Rating: 
3
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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Comments

Pure storytelling, with superb acting. So powerful to see that sort of creative work in the west end, on a story celebrating the capacity of the human spirit,

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