We are told, very early on, that this story, the one at the center of Bristol Old Vic’sTouching the Void, would make for one really good book, and, as it turns out, it also makes for a really tense and gripping theatrical stage presentation as well. Although sometimes hanging over the cliff’s edge in an overly loud and sensational manner, teasing us all with cataclysmic disaster, this book-to-stage adaptation manages to elevate itself, rarely faltering or slipping off that testy mountain’s edge, even as the characters, not the actors, lose their grip and footing on that impressive piece of stage magic. Director Tom Morris (Bristol Old Vic/Trafalgar Studios’s The Grinning Man), along with the inventive Director of Photography Jamie Hobbis have a sure-footed stance, projecting this live version with steadfast glory to the audience sitting inside that 250-year-old theatre as well as to all the viewers from across the globe tuning in to celebrate the return.
The real life-or-death epic was an unknown daring adventure for me, having never read the book, seen the movie, or read a review of the play. I had most definitely heard of the theatrical version, and was always ever so curious, but, although for some, the outcome was a given, for me, I was thrust, quite inventively onto that same dangerous edge peering into the void with a heightened level of tension and anxiety. I did not know what would become of climber Joe Simpson, played with a strong sense of purpose by the compelling Josh Williams (Donmar’s One Night in Miami), as he attempts to survive a desperate situation on the remote Siula Grande mountain in the Andes, all on his own with little to no supplies, food, or water, and a broken leg. The strongly built play, as created with an expertise for time and place by writer David Greig (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), begins, most intensely, with Joe’s cries into the void for his climbing partner, Simon, played wisely and clearly by Angus Yellowlees (BBC’s The Last Commanders) to come to his aid. We can already feel the fallen man’s pain and fear in just that one word uttered over and over again. It makes us wonder, and ask about why those ‘”fucking climbers” do what they do. It’s definitely a shared feeling embodied in the character of Joe’s sister, Sarah, played strongly by the edgy Fiona Hampton (The Globe’s Much Ado About Nothing) who plays a stronger role than I ever imagined as the play treks forward. The answer feels as abstract and honest as the one we all know, “cause it’s there,” but the stronger explanation lies somewhere in the idea, as explained by Simon, that ‘not climbing’ is akin to living a life in captivity, never getting to experience the rush and the feeling that a climb, and this play lays out with wise visuals and ease. To look where no man has looked before. Now that must be a rush that makes all the cold and the climb feel worth it. (Although I don’t think I’m sold on the idea.)
Director Morris does well with the obvious big summit challenges set before him, needing without a doubt to keep us thoroughly enthralled and engaged for the whole cliff-hanging ordeal, right up to the bitter end. And he achieves and conquers this summit almost entirely. I did at times start to become worn out by the hallucinatory drive set forth by Sarah, as Joe fights with all his might one obstacle after obstacle while stumbling up against his survival instincts and failure response. Overall, this tactic works its magic, but there is a limit, and at times I wondered if I had reached mine, here and there – but maybe that’s part of the point, to make this journey almost gruesomely long and treacherous. The set and costume designer Ti Green (Young Vic/TFANA’s The Emperor) finds his way to that place as well, unveiling the same sense of wonderment and drive in the use of all that lies around them. Green and the play’s crew bring this harrowing tale to life through the re-construction and re-formation of found objects in a clever mind-expanding manner, fashioning rock surfaces and terrain from pub tables and chairs, while elevating scale and context in a surprisingly robust simple manner. Assisted with a strong pulsating underscore orchestrating each painful step along the way, composer and sound designer Jon Nicholls (National Theatre’s My Brilliant Friend) seamlessly discovers all the elements needed to expand the worldview at every turn, thrust, and step. The well crafted piece strides forward, highlighting the tense energy with lightning precision, thanks to some fine work by lighting designer, Chris Davey (Welsh National Opera’s Sweeney Todd). It’s astounding just how the team comes together to find their way up that challenging cliff, joining with the acting duo and their characters as they ascend to the top of that snow capped mountain on a creatively well crafted metal framework coated to enhance the treacherous route these two men took to achieve this remarkable climb. It’s an impressive feat, that they all, cast and crew, manages with an exacting precision and creative edge.
There is tension and dread, matched by passion and understanding at every stage of the climb and play. Movement Director Sasha MIlavic Davies (Royal Court’s Pity) finds unique substructures of dance and blocking to build the emotional core that this piece requires for us to stay totally in step with the journey. I’d be curious to know what this show would look and feel like live and in-person from the third row or twentieth. Sometimes I imagined that it would be stronger, surrounded by other audience members and feeding on their nervous energy floating in the air as Joe struggles in the half-light to stay with himself, while other times, I appreciated the closeness that the camera can give. Abstractionism, on stage, can find life in the theatre, when done well like it is done here, whereas film only points out, probably by our own viewing habits, the unrealness of the do-or-die scenarios. It’s hard to pin down which one would work the best (I would bet on live and in-person, but I am a theatre junkie through and through, so no surprise). With strong work by all the others, including Yellowlees as co-climber Simon, balancing the traits of camaraderie and the survivalist instincts that must live inside each of those who want to do this for ‘fun’, as well as the unforgettable Patrick McNamee (Sell A Door’s History Boys) as the quirky tag-along camp manager, Richard, Bristol Old Vic’s Touching the Void finds heartbreakingly tenderness in the bond between these men, even when coated with the harsh conditions that hang in the background, and the dreaded dilemma that dangles before them. I won’t spoil the end, for the one or two of you who don’t know how this powerfully exciting tale turns out, but you should tune in and catch this before this streaming opportunity disappears into the void. Tickets can be found here.
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