Mallory – Beyond Everest
Little Theatre, Nairn
* * * *
"Because it’s there," is the famous answer Everest climber George Mallory is said to have given to a reporter’s question of why he would want to climb the mountain.
And telling the story of his life – and rewriting it to avoid the death – has been too tempting a challenge for writer and actor John D Burns.
MALLORY - BEYOND EVEREST had a preview showing at Nairn’s Little Theatre last week in the run-up to the one-man show’s debut at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
And though a testing experience for Burns who carries the whole piece on his shoulders, the play is a beautifully-written reimagining of the life of a complicated, driven man.
In Burns’ version, the climber survives and is feted as the first man to top and survive Everest.
The drama plays with time to take us through from Mallory’s first climb, meeting his wife Ruth, facing Everest for a first, second and third time, answering for the deaths of seven Sherpas, to encountering the godlike rower Sandy Irvine who in real life died on the mountain with him.
Deft storytelling through short scenes written to keep the pace whipping on worked with the device of a BBC radio interview with the older Mallory, the driving force through the play.
In Thursday’s first public performance, that pace began to flag in places, though the format of a man recounting his experiences left room for natural-seeming slower moments while in reflection.
Sheila Simey in the wings as the anonymous BBC interviewer with the clipped vowels of 50 years ago also turned in a fine performance that – like the set, props and plaintive flute music by Bob Pegg – added authenticity. Quirky scene-setting – helped by great use of light – included a blackboard on an easel which worked for teacher Mallory’s Charterhouse years, to create the railway tracks he tested himself on as a youngster and as the frame for a flimsy tent on a deadly mountain.
The writing itself allows you to become familiar with some continuing themes in Mallory’s life – such as the pleasure of dancing with his wife and his pain at parting from her and his children to service his other great love, Everest.
But Burns also bravely chooses to raise – in the subtlest of ways - the possibility that Mallory’s feelings for Sandy Irvine were more than mere friendship and admiration for the younger man’s athletic prowess.
More heavy-handed, perhaps, is the slotting in of scenes from Moby Dick as Ahab pursues his quest to hunt down the elusive white whale – not so far from Mallory’s obsession with topping Everest.
But the performance of John Burns is a towering achievement. He brings to life a hero from a different age, makes him both vulnerable and invincible, Establishment and maverick. The direction from Catherine MacNeil and Melissa Paterson allows Burns the actor to make the most of the subtleties in the script by Burns the writer!
Above all, the play emphasises the tantalising mystery of the many ‘what ifs’ that still hover round the legend of an extraordinary man. Margaret Chrystall
The play is on at 3pm each day at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe from July 30 to August 25 (no show staged on August 11) at the C Nova venue 145. For more on the play: www.mallorybeyondeverest.com
Read John’s blog for the story of how he put the show together: www.johndburns.wordpress.com