“[They cross the Andes]”
So goes the seemingly unstageable direction from Peter Schaffer’s 1964 epic The Royal Hunt of the Sun. The buzz of public scepticism and curiosity, which arose from the impossibility of this production’s first staging, can also be traced in the pre-performance hum of the Bristol Old Vic’s anticipated season opener, Touching The Void. Exactly how will Director Tom Morris take us over the mountaintop?
It’s a true tale known to many: after conquering Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes, mountaineers Joe Simpson (Josh Williams) and Simon Yates (Edward Hayter) meet a ruthless storm, leaving Joe dangling and Simon taking his weight. With conditions worsening, time ticking and no method of communication, Yates is forced to cut the rope which binds them and, miraculously surviving a death-drop, Simpson drags himself broken-legged back to base-camp with only the beats of Boney M. playing in his head to set his rhythm.
We ease into our harnesses and start in a Scottish pub, a favourite sanctuary for climbers to plan their next adventure over a pint. Here we meet the survivors: the reserved and practical Simon and hobbit-like Richard (Patrick McNamee), a Walden-reciting romanticizer of adventure who stumbles into the mountaineers during his gap year, offering himself as basecamp coordinator (aka tent watcher). We’re in a (hypothetical?) world where Joe is lost, and his grieving sister, Sarah (Fiona Hampton), tries to figure out how it came to this: how could Simon slice that rope and plunge her brother to his death? Why do people put themselves through this kind of stuff anyway?
To answer these questions, Simon and Richard transform the pub’s retrospective haze into a kaleidoscopic reconstruction of the expedition. Glass rims, toppling tables and the scaling of the proscenium arch ingeniously conjures a mountain range on which Simon teaches Sarah how and why he climbs. Richard (evidently the show’s comic relief) then plays out his version of the adventure in miniature, traversing his self-proclaimed “philosophical ridge;” peanuts become people and shaving cream forms sheets of snow. The playfulness of shifting perspective and a bouncing script speaks to the magnitude of human endeavour, as well as to the smallness of a person in the wideness of the world.
Once we are warmed up, Sarah is taken to see the real thing, and we watch Siula Grande emerge from the darkness upstage; acute-angled shards intertwine on a colossal spider-webbed structure and sugar-papered skin creates a satisfying crunch as Simon and Joe puncture with their ice picks. But we all know their approaching fate when they reach the peak; a blue-tinted hue and frenzied soundscape ruthlessly invades the stage as the descent slips out of joint. Joe’s leg breaks to the vision of a chair smashing to pieces, and the world spins off its axis. He falls away and upstage into the abyss, then downwards from the sky; gravity takes a new hold. Lungs gasp for breath, and I need a glass of wine at the interval.
Everything constructed in the first act is destroyed and rearranged in the jagged prospect of Joe’s isolated survival. But when all is stripped to the core, the script suffocates under sentimentality. His “sis” flattens into an awkward Jiminy Cricket figure who keeps him fighting when he wants to give up. But deep down here, spoken words seem reductive and metaphors of endurance don’t stick. When Simon knew he had that pen knife, he cut the rope; it was practical survival instinct. That mountain isn’t a moralising metaphor for overcoming emotional adversity, and it shouldn’t be made into one.
A press night can tremble with first-night nerves, tainted by bated breaths in anticipation of something going wrong. But this habitual anxiety charges the show’s electricity, and I am excited by this ode to human potential. I watch this impressive four-man ensemble walk towards the shadowed wings, and they collapse into embrace against a crystal-clear morning at the end of the conquered mountain. We share in their relief.
Touching the Void is playing at the Bristol Old Vic until 6 October 2018. For further information and tickets, please click here.