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Review of Shackleton’s Carpenter at Jermyn Street Theatre

Shackleton's Carpenter - Jermyn Street Theatre - Malcolm Rennie (Harry McNish).
Shackleton’s Carpenter – Jermyn Street Theatre – Malcolm Rennie (Harry McNish). Photographer Anna Urik

What happened on Endurance, a Norwegian ship led by Sir Ernest Shackleton (1874-1922) is well documented – and easily accessible today: each of the twenty-eight men on board her final voyage has their own Wikipedia page, for instance. But I couldn’t name any others off the top of my head, and this play’s title, Shackleton’s Carpenter, only underlines this. Harry McNish (1874-1930) (Malcolm Rennie) still has some unresolved bones to pick with Shackleton as well as others on that doomed expedition.

But in this single-performer production, one gets the feeling that he has, in effect, an audience of one – himself, as he attempts to put to bed the outstanding issues and disagreements that arose. Chief among these appears to be Shackleton’s order to shoot what McNish repeatedly referred to as “my cat”, because he (Shackleton) had determined the cat would not survive the harsh conditions of the Antarctic region after Endurance had finally sunk, but what the episode really seemed to signify (to me, at least) is contempt for a lack of trust on Shackleton’s part that McNish (and perhaps some of the other crew members) could continue to look after the cat.

The set remains static throughout, a dinghy for a bed stage right and not much else aside from a crate elsewhere. The production, therefore, relies on the power of storytelling. It is good. It is riveting. It is powerful. Rennie’s McNish periodically voices Shackleton and other crew members, to the point of mimicking their accents, apparently in retaliation of their contempt for his own (he was raised in Port Glasgow, Renfrewshire). In keeping with his religious upbringing and dislike of profanity, the script for the play (Gail Louw) is often indicative of anger, frustration and bitterness but strong language of the kind that live daytime television presenters profusely apologise for to this day is completely absent.

It all comes across as a steady stream of consciousness, which combines with a very active imagination. McNish is in control of who is in this conversation between himself and what he believes to be the other crew members: he banishes one whom he has a thorough dislike for, making it quite clear he has no desire to see him again. Of course, what he is really doing is purging his mind of the memory of what becomes the show’s antagonist – and in doing so, one starts to wonder how reliable a narrator McNish is.

It’s the perennial problem with a one-man production: it’s a single perspective show, with both their own and everyone else’s words edited to suit the narrator’s outlook. I don’t think bias was necessarily intentional here, but without either a real or imagined Shackleton able to share his version of events, any chance of setting McNish’s mind at rest is quite impossible. And so it proves, with a near-exhausted McNish having expended much energy, in essence, saying he was right and others were not.

As a production, however, it works well. Holding an audience’s attention on one’s own for over an hour is no easy task, and Malcolm Rennie gives a highly convincing performance – there are injuries from his adventures that he carries into older age, as well as a tendency to drink straight from the bottle. Today, he may well have received some form of therapy and/or psychiatric treatment. A lot is covered in this one-act play, including comradeship (or the lack thereof) and class divisions in the society of the day. Accessible for the relatively uninitiated like me who knew little about Endurance other than it got crushed by Antarctic ice and eventually sank, this show was a fascinating and compelling experience.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Shackleton’s Carpenter, Harry McNish, was the only man who challenged The Boss on the ice floes of Antarctica.

In the summer of 1914, Sir Ernest Shackleton and his crew set sail on The Endurance for the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, an attempt to make the first land crossing of the Antarctic continent. It was to be a fateful journey. On November 21st, 1915 the Endurance was crushed by ice in the Weddell Sea off Antarctica, causing her to sink. The expedition leader and his crew of 27 were left stranded on pack ice.

McNish, brilliant carpenter and shipwright, defied Shackleton’s orders and played an absolutely vital role in ensuring all 28 were saved. But whose was the story to endure?

For all his bravery and ingenuity, McNish was one of the very few crew members who were never awarded the Polar Medal. His health impaired by the experience, he emigrated to New Zealand where his condition worsened, and he could no longer work. Now, alone and destitute, one still night on the dockside, he challenges The Boss one last time. In his fevered mind, he relives the Endurance expedition, pitting himself against Shackleton and plagued by the ghosts of his past. How did he antagonise the hero of Antarctica? How does he come to terms with it?

Written by Gail Louw
Directed by Tony Milner
Starring Malcolm Rennie
Monday July 29 to Saturday August 17 2019


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