It may seem impossible to imagine how you might take a story of two climbers scaling a Peruvian mountain and bring it to the stage. It’s harder still to imagine how a story based on a book detailing a real life scandal in the climbing world could possibly be transformed into a compelling piece of theatre. But David Greig’s adaptation of Touching The Void has pulled it off.
If you couldn’t stomach the film, this is a tale of two climbing partners who decide to tackle a previously untried route up Siula Grande, a mountain tucked away behind a couple of mountain lakes, glaciers and several miles of rocky scree. They doing the climbing equivalent of wild camping: they’re out with the minimum of kit with only a rope connecting them as a plan B. They reach the summit more or less on schedule but the weather’s pretty terrible, resulting in one climber left suspended over a ravine. The other climber, Simon, is left with the unenviable decision: cut the rope and maybe save his own life or hang out with his suspended friend Joe and wait for hypothermia to get them both.
The film’s a mishmash of recreation and documentary and is as harrowing as you’d expect. Yet Greig’s play is – rather astonishingly – funny. A guitar-playing wannabe writer, gap year student and guardian of their base camp, Richard, gives a fabulously accessible overview of both the action and, importantly for this story, climbing etiquette. And Joe’s sister, Sarah, in her incomprehension of her brother’s actions, helps give the vertiginous in the audience some sense of the literally breathtaking adrenalin unlocked by a climb to the top of the world. With laser-like precision, both bring humour to a story of endurance which is otherwise short on laughs.
A co-production between the Lyceum and Bristol Old Vic, this is perfectly orchestrated theatre. Ti Green’s set is stunning, the perfect foil for Chris Davey’s intricate lighting plot. The sound design (Jon Nicholls) deserves its own curtain call, the creaking of the ice evoking a menacing chill. Movement director Sasha Milavic Davies delivers what ought to be impossible as she creates the impression of three three people scaling an ice-face. The staging is elegant, sparing and somehow transports you into the chill of the ice and the tempestuous snow. And for a touring production, this is an audacious use of the theatre space that must have been measured to within an inch of its life.
A shocking turn of events leaves Joe shattering one of his legs, which turns into four days of crawling. It’s a phenomenal tribute to Josh Williams that though he spends at least half of the play on his belly, his performance as the fiercely loyal thrill-seeking adventurer is bursting with energy. He possesses a strength of will that is the key to understanding the story’s conclusion. Edward Hayter is a carefully understated Simon, made fragile only by the knowledge of the consequences of his action. Patrick McNamee is a floppy-eared puppy of a Richard, tripping over his metaphorical paws in his quest to find his own adventure. Finally, Fiona Hampton glowers, grieves and harangues her way through her brother’s story, displaying the self-imposed courage of those left behind.
It is hard to single out the staging, the actors or the script as the star in this production. David Greig brings a belay’s worth of compassion to this incredible tale; his epic poem as Joe and Simon scale the glacier is an aural feast. The only possible criticism of this inventive staging is the quantity of crawling in the second act – the challenge inherent in a story about a guy who tried for four days to crawl back to his camp. Still, the lights, music and choreography depicting the effects of deprivation on Joe’s senses keep the story on track.
The first act is phenomenal – it’s gripping, surprising, literally breathtaking – so the second half has a pretty hard act to follow. Overall, director Tom Morris offers his audience a fabulous tribute to what people can do when they try.