Review - Touching the Void at the Duke of York's Theatre
Probably the most famous stage direction in all of world drama is "Exit, pursued by a bear" in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale. But in terms of sheer challenges to realise on stage, surely Peter Shaffer's instruction in his 1964 play The Royal Hunt of the Sun, "they cross the Andes" is an even bigger ask. But directors love a challenge: that play's original director John Dexter is said to have told the playwright, "If you take this line out, I'm not directing the play".
It was no doubt a similar prospect of staging the seemingly unstageable that attracted Tom Morris to make a theatrical version of Joe Simpson's famous mountaineering memoir Touching the Void, also set in the Andes, that tells of the climber's (mis)adventures while attempting a previously-uncharted ascent of the Western front of the Siula Grande in Peru in 1985.
Of course, the fact that he lived to tell the tale is immediately a spoiler-alert: for all the agonising tensions of his fall, and how his fellow climber was forced to cut the rope that tied them together which plunged him into a ravine from which he had to crawl to base camp on a severely-injured broken leg, we know how it is going to end.
But Morris pulls off a spellbinding series of theatrical tricks, not just maintaining a churning sense of unfolding drama and destiny, but also a vivid theatricality that places us on the mountainside beside the climbers. Morris has past form in bringing other worlds to theatrical life, as co-director (with Marianne Elliott) of the original stage version of War Horse, now back in London at Wembley Park's Troubadour Theatre.
But this time he doesn't have giant puppet horses to take on a life-like form to convince us of their verisimilitude. Instead, he only has real-life, human actors, dwarfed by a massive mountain and a matching ambition to conquer its sheer rock faces; and Ti Green's design solution is to create a huge onstage climbing frame that's suspended from the flies and rotates for different perspectives. As Joe (Josh Williams) and his climbing mate Simon (Angus Yellowlees) clamour precariously over it, you are transported to the Andes. Other elements, like Jon Nicolls' soundscape and Chris Davey's arresting lighting, provide their own atmospheric contributions.
Early on, Joe's sister Sarah (Fiona Hampton) who provides a kind of narration to the proceedings, asks the inevitable question: Why climb? That question is one that can also can be asked about the theatre itself: why do we do it? This play provides its own answer: to see shows like this that asks larger questions, too, about what drives us as human beings. It's also a penetrating portrayal of the impulse of human survival, against the odds: a thrilling, salutary reminder of our shared humanity and ability to overcome hardships, however extreme.
Touching the Void tickets are available now.