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Mountain drama is edge-of-your-seat stuff

By Margaret Chrystall

REVIEW: Touching The Void

Eden Court

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MAYBE like the superhuman strength climber Joe Simpson found to save his life, the play about his survival pulls out the most super-ingenious thinking to do his story justice.

The book, film – story is well-known. Climbing a new route on Siula Grande in the Andes with companion Simon Yates, Joe Simpson had to crawl to safety with a mangled leg after Simon, thinking Joe was dead, cut the rope holding him. Joe dropped to the bottom of a crevasse, but against the odds slid, hopped and crawled back to base camp.

As writer David Greig had described beforehand, his first task creating the play Touching The Void was to put on stage a motivation any of us could understand as to why anyone would risk their life for the ‘fun’ of climbing, forging a new route.

And it was through the semi-fictionalised character of Joe’s sister Sarah (Fiona Hampton) that this ‘why?’ was spectacularly played out. On stage, Simon (Ed Hayter) explains it to her by first getting her to climb up a tipped-up pub table, handhold over foothold, and soon she is scrambling gleefully up the side of the stage.

Ed Hayter as Simon and Fiona Hampton as Sarah. Picture: Geraint Lewis
Ed Hayter as Simon and Fiona Hampton as Sarah. Picture: Geraint Lewis

Playing with the timeline, creating fantasy scenes – such as Sarah in Joe’s dream fiercely egging him on to keep moving by wincingly hitting his broken bones with an ice axe – all added to the taut core of Joe and Simon’s story. Particularly poignant is the scene where a supposedly supposedly dead Joe comes back to speak to Simon and their third expedition companion Richard (Patrick McNamee).

Back at base camp having cut the rope, Ed Hayter beautifully-expresses Simon’s shock at the loss of Joe and the conflicting instincts he is battling. On one hand, apparently burning Joe’s clothes because he accepts his death, is being practical, but on the other, he refuses to pack up and leave without finding Joe’s hidden wallet.

Offsetting the seriousness of the accident, the chirpy persona of Richard adds a lot of humour – his own book, he tells us, will be called Avoiding The Touch. He also acts almost as a narrator, at times usefully passing on information such as “Eighty per cent of accidents happen on the way down”. The actor Patrick McNamee also has a beautiful singing voice as he plays the loon-trousered, guitar-playing epitome of everything Joe dislikes.

A parallel that is set up early on is the story of early Alpine-style climbing pioneer German climber Toni Kurz who died in an attempt to climb the North Face of the Eiger in 1936.

Toni had to cut the rope holding a dead companion below him, but died, himself dangling just out of reach of rescuers, saying finally ‘Ich kann nicht mehr’ (I can’t go on).

It is a story well-known to Joe and he says “Toni Kurz is my hero.” Later, when he is weighing his own options of survival he says “What would Toni Kurz do now?”.

Josh Williams as Joe Simpson who crawled back to safety after the accident in Peru. Pictures: Geraint Lewis
Josh Williams as Joe Simpson who crawled back to safety after the accident in Peru. Pictures: Geraint Lewis

The physical choreography of Simon and Joe’s climb is edge-of-the-seat stuff as they deftly and also slowly and painstakingly climb their way across the giant metal structure that represents the mountain. As the show goes on the 'mountain' is moved and turned at different moments by a group of orange-parkaed, blank-faced extra characters, who also play the differently shaped-rocks that capture Joe’s imagination, such as “a rock shaped like a dancing nun” that he must agonisingly hop his way across.

The sound of raw winds raking across Siula Grande is part of the play before the curtain even rises. The sound effects are matched with the soundtrack of quirky hits of the late 70s and early 80s that add their own comments on the action. From Love Will Tear Us Apart expressing Sarah’s grief for her lost brother at the Clachaig Inn to the annoying earworm, Boney M’s Brown Girl In The Ring, which infuriates Joe when Sarah lodges it in his head.

The sound adds an extra layer to our experience, but was also the one letdown of the opening night performance at Eden Court. Joe’s first main speech was inaudible – maybe a faulty mike or the actor not quite adjusted to the projection his voice needed to get it out there. But also throughout, the soundtrack at times almost drowned out the actors’ words, as if the whole sound balance was a little bit skewed.

Yet this is a play that gets so much right. Packed up in its rucksack is spectacle, imagination, emotional connection, profound moments, comedy and moments of genius in the story-telling.

From the most difficult feelings such as facing death to the conflicted relationships such as Joe's blokeish friendship with Simon to Joe's with his sister. When she appears in his dream he greets her with: 'Oh God, it's you! What are you doing here?'.

But the almost abrupt ending of the play focuses on Simon and Joe being reunited, reminding us of the true heart of the play, the dilemma both faced because of the other.

Despite a knack for bringing us the sometimes raw details, there is also room for the lyrical in David Greig's script.

"Moonlight over the Andes. No-one has ever seen this before," Joe comments wonderingly to Simon in the snow hole on their newly-conquered route before the accident changes everything.

Lyrical and raw combine in one of the most enduring moments from the play as Sarah reads out the letter Joe left for her in case he didn't come back.

He describes for her a nirvana moment of happiness, sitting on top of the world looking down on the clouds – from the base camp latrine.

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