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.

Our Country’s Good at Theatre Royal Stratford review ****

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Our Country’s Good

Theatre Royal Stratford East, 28th April 2018

Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good is one of my favourite plays. As it is for many theatre-goers. The context, the “First Fleet” of British convicts sent to Australia with their Royal Marine guards in the 1780s, and the setting, Sydney Cove in New South Wales, are intriguing; the characters, which cover a broad spectrum of society at the time, are many, but go beyond mere sketches; the plot, incorporating a play within a play (sort of) as the convicts set out to stage a version of George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer guided by the well-meaning Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark, is perspicacious; and the messages many and critical. Above all it is accessible but not simplistic.

The play is based on Thomas Keneally’s novel The Playmaker, which I haven’t, shamefully read, and the novel and these historical events, (without the Farquhar play), were loosely dramatised by Jimmy McGovern a couple of years ago in the BBC series Banished. It is also no great surprise that the play is used as a text for various English Language examinations.

Can art, and specifically the theatre, play a part in “reforming” and rehabilitating criminals? Is “criminality” innate or born out of desperation? How is justice dispensed? What is a fair punishment for petty crimes? Why is society ashamed of taking retribution? How do the class system,  and gender relationships, respond to, and evolve in, a new, and hostile, environment? How damaging is the force of colonisation?

These are some of the more obvious themes which the play contends with but there is also a pointed examination of the way in which we communicate, most obviously through the character of John Wisehammer, an outsider as a Jew, but who is educated and can read and write, in the relationship between Midshipman Harry Brewer and Duckling Smith, and in the lines from the Recruiting Officer itself. It also, through the play, shows what people are capable of if they are given an opportunity.

This production, the third from the seven theatre consortium that makes up Ramps on the Moon, underscores these dimensions. Ramps on the Moon is made up of a company of D/deaf, disabled, hearing and non-disabled cast and creatives who seek a similarly diverse audience and, outside of the productions, aim to ensure D/deaf and disabled people see the theatre as a realistic option on both sides of the curtain.

From my perspective, as non-disabled, the opportunity to see and hear the various solutions employed to present the drama and connect to the audience, was most welcome. The use of BSL and interpretation in particular added a whole new dimension to the play’s central message about the power of theatre and about who can make it. Jon Nicholls’s sound design and composition was first class, even between scenes. The production uses less doubling than the text allows, which sharpens the divide between captive and captor and lends clarity at the expense of the intended ambiguity. As it happened at the performance I attended Colin Connor ended up playing Harry Brewer as well as the prize shit Major Robbie Ross, a man beyond redemption. Serendipity indeed as he is a fine actor, though his eventual mental and physical collapse was a little restrained.

Caroline Parker, both in her role as “Shitty” Meg Long, as the voiceover and as BSL interpreter for Emily Rose Salter’s Duckling amongst others was excellent. Ms Salter, in this her debut performance, gives a master class in communication without words, poignant and aggressive as the action demanded. I was also drawn to Tom Dawze’s enigmatic Wisehammer, Gbemisola Ikumelo’s truculent Liz Morden, who remember eventually speaks out to save her life and secure justice, and Alex Nowak’s preposterous Sideway and priggish Reverend Johnson.

Fiona Buffini did a superb job in bringing all these elements together, including that part of the technology that was visible to me, and ensured that the plot was clear and ideas were foregrounded. She couldn’t quite avoid the signalling and exposition that characterises a handful of Ms Wertenbaker’s scenes, but that is true of every version I have seen, and there were a few moments where pacing was a little off-beam. Overall though this is a fine production that deserves to be seen by as wider audience as possible (it still has to go to Sheffield and Birmingham), and which sheds new light on this remarkable play.