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Bringing mountain drama Touching The Void to the stage challenged playwright David Greig

By Margaret Chrystall

THERE is a bit of irony when David Greig – writer of play Touching The Void – describes the challenge he set himself to stage the Andean mountains on stage.

The director of The Lyceum in Edinburgh says that when he starts thinking of a new production like Touching The Void he loves a challenge and to “dig a hole to see how I’m going to get out”.

Mountaineer Joe Simpson agonisingly crawled his way out of a deep crevasse in the Andes in 1985 when his climbing partner felt he had to cut the rope connecting them when Joe fell and was left dangling.

Joe later wrote Touching The Void which became a million-selling book, later made into a film and now the play written by David.

David, faced with the challenge of telling the story on stage, excited audiences with some memorable mountains in the play which was first staged last year.

To stage it, David with the production’s director Tom Morris and creative team came up with some ingenious solutions.

This week it comes to Eden Court in Inverness with five-star reviews behind it from early performances at both Bristol and Edinburgh – such as ‘thrilling drama reaches dizzy heights’.

So with that creative team and director Tom 'War Horse’ Morris how did David set about scaling his theatrical mountains?

He said: “I think the first thing was ‘How are we going to stage a mountain?!’.

“But I really like when it seems that the idea is impossible. The reason for that is that if an idea seems impossible, whatever solution you come up with is going to be interesting.

“It will be something that no-one has done before that seems new.

“So I was very drawn by that and Tom Morris the director and myself quite quickly decided we weren’t going to have any polystyrene or pretend snow.

“We would rather go for an approach that used theatricality and poetry and the imagination and the stage to create the imagery.”

Josh Williams as Joe Simpson. Picture: Geraint Lewis
Josh Williams as Joe Simpson. Picture: Geraint Lewis

But for David, there was a second equally-big challenge to making the theatre version of Touching The Void fresh.

“I suppose the second challenge is it is largely a story about one man’s very lonely struggle over four or five days,” David said.

“The first half has two men in it then after the rope is cut, it becomes a different thing.

“So the challenge is to stage a drama where a great deal of the actual drama is inside one man’s head and again that falls into that category I like of ‘interesting/ impossible question’.

“In his book, there is a very interesting part where Joe talks about a voice in his head he conversed with when he was struggling in his darkest moments.

“We read a lot of Joe’s books and we eventually came to the conclusion that it might be good to personalise that voice.

“That then became a solution as to how to stage that part.”

But then the team tested their solution.

David said: “We spent a lot of time, did a workshop and found lots of interesting solutions.

“We used nearly all of them in the end.

“But it’s a bit like you throw yourself into a hole in order to force you to dig yourself out and it was an interesting process.

“We were writing the play most of last year and were rehearsing into late summer and it really was constantly developing as we worked.

Fiona Hampton as Sarah in Touching The Void. Picture: Geraint Lewis
Fiona Hampton as Sarah in Touching The Void. Picture: Geraint Lewis

“There was a very big piece of scenery we all had to learn to work with – the actors, writers and directors.

“But we eventually found a language for the show that I hope makes sense to the audience and I hope when people come to see the show it’s very different from reading the book or seeing the documentary.

“My hope is that if you have seen the documentary the play will be an interesting new angle and way of thinking about it that will entertain you and keep you on the edge of your seat.

“But I also hope that if you have never read the book or seen the documentary you would also be totally drawn in and think this is the only way you could tell the story.”

David admits he shared the challenges out to the rest of the team!

“I would write ‘Joe inside the crevasse’ and it was up to designer Ti Green and Tom to come up with ideas about that.”

But the play is not all about the physical representation of the real world.

“At the same time I would try and throw curve balls – there is a lot of fantasy and fantasia in the play because a lot of it happens inside a man’s head – and that was great fun for me," said David.

“And I think it was great fun for Ti to respond to those and then you add in Chris Davey the lighting designer and Jon Nicholls who designed the sound."

David is also pleased that the play can take the audience to some of the scariest places experienced by Joe through his ordeal.

“There are moments when I hope the audience absolutely feels they are on the side of a mountain with the characters and some of that is about raw brutal use of light and sound and the designers are brilliant at that. That is what they do.

“Tom and me wanted to have the audience’s palms sweating as you watch somebody in peril and I hope we have achieved that.”

One of the ways the company tell the story is with scenes located somewhere familiar to North climbers.

David said: “One thing for Highland audiences to know is that a good deal of the play is set in the Clachaig Inn in Glencoe.

“That’s not the only way we tell the story – we have a number of tricks up our sleeve,” he laughed. “But during the 60s and 70s it was known as a veritable den of climbers and it is somewhere that Joe Simpson and Simon Yates knew very well. So we took the liberty of using it as a location in the play.”

David is an outdoors man himself.

“I love climbing, I’m an eager walker and Munro-bagger and do extreme running, I love all that and that is a world I am in.

“But I am also aware that my wife sometimes – if she wants to distract me – she will ask me about my injury niggles.

“I will just talk and she will switch off and go and do something else.

Fiona Hampton as Sarah and Ed Hayter as Simon in Touching The Void. Picture: Geraint Lewis
Fiona Hampton as Sarah and Ed Hayter as Simon in Touching The Void. Picture: Geraint Lewis

“The idea with Touching The Void was ‘Can I write the play and invite my wife to something she will be interested in?’

“For me, there are two very interesting moral points, one for each character.

“For Simon, being faced with the decision of whether to cut the rope between him and his partner, that seems a big moral question.

“And the second is Joe’s.

“Why does he decide to live, stuck effectively in a grave?

“Wouldn’t the easiest thing be to just let himself go?

“But he doesn’t, he chooses to live.

“And I found those two choices very interesting.

“If my wife came to see the show, I thought, she might think ‘You bloody idiots you shouldn’t have been out on the mountain in the first place – I’ve got no sympathy!’.

“So I thought the first thing we have to do is convince the audience why someone would want to do it and why the characters would do it.

“To some extent, what is the void that you are avoiding?”

But for David there was another question at the heart of the play he hoped to write.

“The other area was, I thought ‘It’s all very well to worry about a man with a broken leg crawling across a glacier to live because it is very heroic and male and a bit privileged to be in the position of climbing mountains in the first place’.

“But what I realised was that that simple, central question ‘When it is so hard that it would be easier to give up, why would you try to live?’ – and that is a decision that people make every day. They make it from depression, from chronic illness, from recovering from disease or car crashes It is universal and it is a human question – is the value of life worth fighting for?

“So I thought if we can make the play about that, it would be a play about what it is to be human. So that was where we took it.”

David was pleased that both Joe Simpson and Simon Yates liked the play when they saw it.

“Both of them were very positive. And it must be weird for them, never mind our play or the book or the documentary, this is one of those legends that lies beyond them both, in a way.

“They will never not be the man who crawled across a glacier or the man who cut the rope.

“I think that must be quite an interesting and difficult legacy to live with. In some ways for Joe it might have been the greatest thing that happened to him because it turned him into a writer and that is where he has made his living and that is where he has found his joy for the last few decades.

“And Simon – although in some ways it has been a complicated legacy – it has also given him the ability to be a professional climber. He enjoyed the approach we had taken and I think he felt that it was nice because his character gets a real chance to speak in a way that to some degree in the documentary was less so.

“But I think both of them feel that the play is a new way of telling the story that brought them surprise and delight.

“I think they both liked the approach that fiction allows you to get closer to the truth.”

Touching The Void comes to Eden Court on Thursday, March 14 with performances until Saturday, March 16.

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