Blue Raincoat’s newest creation, Shackleton, is a play which depicts the adventures of the 20th century explorer of the same name. It focuses on the disastrous 1914 Imperial Trans-Atlantic Expedition, using little more than four characters, a variety of props (white sheets representing icebergs and tributaries, tiny paper boats lit up with LED tealights, a massive sail onto which actual photos of the expedition are projected) and great ingenuity.
It is clear early on that Shackleton is not a play based around characters. Despite the occasional hints that we may get to know our narrators better, through singing Christmas carols or playing a slow-motion game of football, it becomes apparent that the aim of this piece is to tell the story of Shackleton’s incredible feats. We also look at the very nature of adventure-seeking and do not explore the human lives behind the tale. Although there is nothing wrong with this focus, there are issues that arise as a result of it. For example, the long trek undertaken by three crew members to reach a whaling station, in stormy conditions, can begin to drag. The clever staging (two of the actors create the terrain by lifting up white sheets while the other two “hike” along it) prevents the scene from becoming boring, but it is difficult to feel any real concern for the characters when the viewer has never even heard them speak.
Strangely enough, the most moving scenes are those which involve the illuminated paper boats. They are suspended on poles, allowing the cast to manoeuvre them gracefully through the darkened stage and giving the illusion of a stormy sea. The sight of vulnerable ships being engulfed by ice floes and massive waves feels oddly visceral, playing on humanity’s desire to explore the world, regardless of cost. Furthermore, the slow start (involving the cast placing “icebergs” around the stage) transitions seamlessly into a sense of real danger as the main boat is marooned on the “icebergs”.
Shackleton absolutely achieves what it set out to do; it expertly weaves the story of the expedition and the challenges faced by the men over the gruelling years around the message of humanity’s need for exploration. However, at times it can seem as if the piece is deliberately trying to lock the audience out of the men’s heads – maybe this is to increase the sense of isolation, but it loses a great deal of impact as a result.