Saturday 16 November 2019

Touching The Void @ Duke Of York's Theatre

Touching The Void @ Duke Of York's Theatre

How do you put a mountain on the stage? It's a colossal task and an integral part of this adaptation of Joe Simpson's 1988 book (also a documentary film, 2003). The answer is to put the mountain in your mind.

Chairs, tables and other pub paraphernalia are strewn across the stage. The proscenium arch becomes a climbing wall. Snow blows in from the side of the stage. An abstract scaffold quivers ominously above the actors, jagged and harsh. The sound design (Jon Nicholls) is all howls and pulses. And then the perspective suddenly shifts as chairs and actors alike are swept back into the void of the stage. It's your imagination that puts the pieces together, the mountain forming like a terrifying, sublime jigsaw.

So why the pub stuff? Well it's not just the mountain that's in our minds. The entire narrative takes place within the mind of Joe (Josh Williams), a climber who ventures up the never-before-done Siula Grande mountain in the Andes with his fellow mountaineer Simon (Angus Yellowlees). When Joe breaks his leg during the descent and is left dangling, Simon makes the dire decision to cut the rope.

In his catatonic, delirious state, Joe's mind takes him back to his favourite pub where he and Simon are joined by their camp mate Richard (Patrick McNamee) and his sister Sarah (Fiona Hampton). So the play takes place both on the mountainside and the imaginary safety of the Clachaig Inn. It's a clever way for adapter David Greig to present this story on stage, a story that pivots between beautiful and ugly: from imaginary vistas and powerful landscapes, to inconceivable pain both emotional and physical.

Even for anyone already familiar with the plot, the narrative gradually ramps up to high intensity, drawing us in towards its climactic choice that has us questioning what we would do in such a situation. The second half is an incredible story of human endurance and willpower, harrowing, visceral and life-affirming.

There's warmth too amongst all the ice. Williams gives a superb physical performance as Joe, full of anguish, but as Sarah, Hampton embodies big sister energy as she taunts and motivates him on his daring descent. She is our emotional anchor too as we relive the journey through her eyes. As Richard, McNamee provides some welcome comic relief, and a beautiful singing voice.

Touching The Void is an extraordinary real life story, and an extraordinary piece of theatre.


Watch: Touching The Void runs at the Duke of York's Theatre until 29th February.

Touching The Void @ Duke Of York's Theatre

Touching The Void @ Duke Of York's Theatre
Photos: Michael Wharley