Touching the Void at Bristol Old Vic review *****

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Touching the Void

Bristol Old Vic, 22nd September 2018

The Tourist had a terrific visit to Bristol recently. Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory’s marvellous Henry V (Henry V at the Tobacco Factory Bristol review *****), the Georgian House, another fine cathedral ticked off, an accidental preview of the refurbished space at the Old Vic and then this, a reminder of just how powerful theatre can be when filtered through the imaginations of first, its creators, and then second, us the audience.

Mind you mountaineer Joe Simpson’s extraordinary, mythic, true-life story of survival after being left for dead on Suila Grande in the Peruvian Andes by his climbing parter Simon Yates could hardly be more dramatic. You may well know it from Mr Simpson’s own mesmerising account in his 1988 book, Touching the Void, or from the feted docudrama from 2003 directed by Kevin MacDonald, with Brendan Mackey, Nicholas Aaron and Ollie Ryall. I also recall a separate TV documentary but I may be getting confused. If you don’t know the story I am not about reveal details here: that would be vexatious. Whilst the Old Vic run is over the production will tour to the joint producing houses of the Royal and Derngate Northampton and Royal Lyceum Edinburgh, and then on to Hong Kong, Perth and Inverness. I would be stunned if it doesn’t get further run-outs thereafter.

For this is brilliant theatre. I can see why some might of thought it a bit nuts to stage it, not only because of the prior, superb treatments, but also because of its subject. How to bring the mountain to the Old Vic deep proscenium? This is after all the oldest continually operating theatre in the English speaking world built in 1764. The Theatre Royal auditorium interior is a thing of beauty in paint and wood, matched only by the Theatre des Bouffes de Nord in Paris IMHO. The new public space based on my quick peek is only going to add to its architectural wonder.

So what have Tom Morris, the AD of BOV and director here, and designer Ti Green, opted to show us here? Well a few tables, chairs and a sign to symbolise a pub in Scotland and a bar in Switzerland. And an immense rotating metal frame, a skein filled with opaque white paper which gradually gets perforated. All of which turn into mountain ranges. Not literally. Don’t be silly. But add in climbing gear, tents, a video backdrop, superb lighting and composition/sound courtesy of Chris Davey and Jon Nicholls and, I swear, we are transported. It is one of the best realisations I have ever seen in a theatre.

However, even with craft of this imagination, that would still not be enough. Which is where the writer David Greig, the AD of the Royal Lyceum, adds his genius. Mr Greig’s original work for Traverse, NT Scotland and Paines Plough is testament to his skill but his adaptions may just be even better. I can vouch for The Suppliant Women which came to the Young Vic last year (The Suppliant Women at the Young Vic review ****), Creditors, Tintin in Tibet, and trustees who rate his contributions to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It is not just the ability to think through how the story can be converted into this thrilling visual spectacle, to show us where and how this happened, but also how to recast the main characters to offer us a insight into why this happened. This is after all a first person narrative where the main character is largely alone.

David Greig’s masterstroke is to incorporate Joe Simpson’s older sister, Sarah, into the narrative. (Sarah is a constant, goading presence in Joe Simpson’s autobiography The Game of Ghosts. Poignantly she died a couple of years ago.). At the outset she is angry at what seems to be Joe’s pointless sacrifice, we rewind to see her meeting Simon with Joe and being bitten herself by the climbing bug. And it is Sarah who is cajoling Joe, the spirit in his fractured mind, during the darkest hours of his escape. Monologue is turned into internal, and then here, external dialogue Add to this the contrast offered by the wry commentary from Richard, the hippyish Geordie who is recruited early on to man the base camp during the “alpine style” assault on Suila Grande.

Patrick McNamee, maybe because of, rather than in spite of, a couple of musical interludes and some remarkably insensitive dialogue, I guess this was Richard, is on top form and Fiona Hampton as the fierce, bolshie, brother-loving, Sarah is outstanding. Edward Hayter has to be more subtle to capture the more taciturn Simon, especially when he is forced to make his momentous decision and the anguish which follows. This role is a huge ask physically, though it pales a little beside that of Josh Williams as Joe. I don’t recall having seen an actor have to commit so much energy to a performance. Hanging off ropes, hopping across rocks, flying down an icy slope. Frostbitten, dehydrated, hypothermic, He really looked like he was knackered and in agony, partly I reckon because he probably was! On top of this he also has to convey the mental agonies that Joe faced in his ordeal as well as offering us, like Edward Hayter’s Simon, some idea of what drives these seemingly unremarkable blokes to take on such challenges. These fellas it seems have a rather different, more direct and maybe more rational, take on risk than the likes of you or I it seems.

So we have humour, suspense, tension, horror, exposition, explanation, psychological insight, metaphor, tricks of perspective and memory, energy, physicality, music (Boney M can be a motivator), Blimey it even feels really cold and dark at times. And if you have ever wondered what a movement director gets paid for, Sasha Milavic Davies (as in the Suppliant Women mentioned above) shows you, and then some.

This is theatre at its inventive best. It gets to the heart of the “what would I have done” question. I do hope many more people get to see it. If you are one of the lucky people close by to the theatres mentioned above do not hesitate and drag as many of your friends along as you can. I guarantee they will not be disappointed. It is hard to think of anything more gripping than a story of someone who “comes back from the dead”. To provoke our imagination into being there with him by using his imagination to create some-one being there with him is just exceptional.

The Suppliant Women at the Young Vic review ****

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The Suppliant Women

Young Vic, 21st November 2017

Before I get started let us just remind ourselves what a marvellous place the Young Vic is. I don’t just mean the quality and quantity of its productions, though heaven knows under the artistic stewardship of David Lan, this has risen to great heights. Not everything works but it is never for lack of trying. Kwame Kwei-Armah has big shoes to fill, though by all accounts he is well capable of doing so, even if the SO and I weren’t entirely persuaded by his latest directorial outing, The Lady From The Sea at the Donmar.

No it is the “feel” of the place that is the thing and the joy of the experience. It is always busy, it seems to thrive on inclusivity and diversity, though what would I know as a middle-aged, white, straight, rich, liberal, hand-wringing bloke, and everyone involved with the theatre is always so polite, welcoming and jolly. I am a right pain in the arse with my seating demands, but the front of house never fails to calmly sort things out, as they did for this performance. So thank you very much Young Vic.

Now I had been looking forward to this production of the from the Actors Touring Company based on the reviews from the run at the Lyceum in Edinburgh. (I see the Lyceum has a new version of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros and David Greig’s adaptation of Strindberg’s Creditors coming up next year – lucky folk). Your man Aeschylus wrote this 2500 years ago, (it was first performed in 463 BCE), but the issues it examines are just as relevant today. How should we treat refugees, the suppliants of the title? What rights do people have to return to their ancestral homelands? Where do we belong? How should refugees be treated in their new home and how should they in turn behave? Why do we have such a deep fear of the other? How can women be forced into marriage? How do women escape sexual violence? How powerful can women’s voices be when they come together?

It is all in there. David Greig, as in all modern adaptions, has to take a direct line translation, here by Ian Ruffell, and make it clear to today’s audience. The wonder is that it apparently remains pretty true to the original. I got the text. It is a beautiful read. The rhythms jump off the page. The chorus here is, unusually for a Greek play, the protagonist and has a lot to say, literally and metaphorically. Director Ramin Gray, together with composer John Browne and choreographer Sasha Milavic Davies, takes this structure and conjure up an astonishing feat, and feast, of movement and verse. Percussionist Ben Burton and Callum Armstrong, who has conjured up a real, live double Aulos (the contemporary Greek pipe), are outstanding.

Really. If you want to see the best “musical” in London then come here. Except that it is now over (oops sorry) and it isn’t the best musical in London, not whilst Follies is still on. Oh and I haven’t seen any other current musicals which I guess makes me a somewhat unreliable witness. BTW I note that if you are a) available and b) a party of one, or two at most, and c) enterprising there are normally returns on most days if you still haven’t seen Follies

The whole spectacle of this Supplicant Women is made even more remarkable by the fierce performances of the non-professional chorus of young women playing the supplicants drawn from the boroughs of Southwark and Lambeth. It is not just their verse, their singing and their dance and movement which impresses, but their complete commitment to the story which impresses. All after just a couple of months of rehearsal. Staggering. At the end you could see the pride in the performance of these women felt by the local lads ,who had a smaller involvement as the chorus of Egyptians come back to claim their would be brides, and the more mature amateurs who made up the Athenian citizens who tentatively welcome the supplicants.

Oscar Batterham as King Pelasgos, who agonises before persuading his people to accept the Women and Omar Ebrahim, who switches from Danaos, the “father” of the Women to the brutal Egyptian Herald, in the blink of an eye, as well as acting as our MC, are both excellent. However Gemma May, as the Chorus leader, stood out for me, not just for the clarity with which she delivered the lines specifically carved out for her, but the way she, well er, led the Chorus.

Fidelity to the Greek original includes a libation from an academic, whose name to my shame I have forgotten, which explained, as was the custom, who funded the performances, and a dedication to Bacchus, which involved a mediocre (I hope) bottle of red being poured on to the suitably practical breeze block flooring of Lizzie’s Clachan’s elegant set.

We have Aeschylus to thank for the concept of tragedy, and for the introduction of more than one character alongside the chorus. Only seven of his plays remain including the three that make up the extraordinary Oresteia, which should be seen by everyone at least once. The other two plays which make up the Danaids trilogy alongside The Suppliants are lost. In the Persians he actually had the temerity to warn his fellow citizens about gloating too much over their victories. In fact he fought against the Persians and his military exploits brought him more fame than his playwriting, despite the fact he ruled supreme in the Dionysia through the 470s and 460s BCE. One final lesson we can learn from Aeschylus: don’t stand directly under an eagle in case it drops a tortoise on your head. Unlikely I grant you but this apparently is how he met his end.

So there you have it. All the big questions, one way and another, were covered off by Aeschylus and his mates, Sophocles and Euripides, whilst the best we Brits could manage at the time were a lot of beakers, pointlessly shifting huge lumps of stone to catch the sun one day a year and pining for a decent hairdresser. To be fair, in all these Greek dramas, you do have to get your head around the intervention of the gods. Specifically in the Suppliant Women the somewhat erratic Zeus. For he it was who caused the women to end up being born in Egypt after he got the hots for a cow lady, Io, from whom the Suppliants were descended. And it is to Zeus they turn to help them when they cross the Med. If it was me I might be a little wary of appealing to the very bloke who indirectly got me into this predicament. Mind you that’s the problem with these top gods, especially the monotheistic ones. Simultaneously good cop, bad cop, vengeful then loving, all to keep us on our toes.

I am guessing that this version of the Suppliant Women will engage further communities after having visited Bern in Switzerland. Edinburgh, Dublin, Belfast, Newcastle, Manchester< Hong Kong, as well as London.  If so please seek it out. It is about as perfect a testament to the power of theatre, then (Ancient Greece) as now., and a paean to the collective power of women. It is also the first time the word “democracy” ever appeared in writing, albeit in the form of an arch pun from the Chorus. Precious stuff.