Thanks to its franchise value and comely and committed cast, it’s hard to see how Touching the Void won’t be a hit; yet this two-act dramatisation of Joe Simpson’s best-selling account of extreme man-versus-the-elements-struggle-to-survive is entirely unremarkable as drama. Despite grand and versatile production design (kudos to set and costume designer Ti Green) and director Tom Morris driving plenty of theatrical spectacle (reminiscent of other Bristol Old Vic productions, like Sally Cookson’s Peter Pan), this play is actually boring. If you enjoy YouTube videos of action scenes spliced together with a chatty, raspy baritone narrator and booming effects that spell D-R-A-M-A, you’ll love this production.
If you know someone who thinks the height of story-telling is the IMG filler videos about legendary sports rivals squaring up for the next match (as played during rain delays of the BBC’s Wimbledon coverage) rush to buy them tickets. But if you expect fully-rounded characters, dramatic tension, conflict and resolution and some kind of emotional engagement, this is not the best investment of the better part of £100 for a night at the theatre. The cast and creative team give it their all and deliver as much as possible but David Greig’s adaptation is as thin as the air at Silua Grande’s summit.
In his stage adaptation of the novel, playwright David Greig has decided to deploy Joe Simpson’s sister, Sarah (Fiona Hampton), as a narrator and occasional ‘spirit guide’ but she is basically an audio description whenever convenient because the playwriting can’t quite stretch to dramatic development or emotional truth. Thankfully, the characters can drop a bit of Shakespeare when we need someone to do that…so, okay then – it’s in the public domain after all.
It is astonishing how a tale so intrinsically visual would find itself so talky but this one does. Letters are read, novels are written, interior monologues are chatted via dreams: the constant explaining and contextualising feels like we are at a slideshow for the Alpine Journal Review of the Year rather than transported via a well-told story. It is frustrating because there is a story to be told. It’s a missed opportunity that the accomplished and capable Greig (who, at just age 25, wrote the prescient Europe, recently revived at the Donmar) doesn’t manage, on this occasion, to give this ‘epic’ a consistent theatrical voice. Greig could have developed the central metaphor of ‘when must we cut the rope’ but he instead sacrifices it to unnecessary mountaineering world-building. Somehow he makes Simon (Angus Yellowless), the climbing partner whose choice for his own survival likely left Joe (Josh Williams) for dead, such a helluva a guy – and then he sends Joe’s sister on a perky mountaineering orientation adventure with him rather than taking a moment for her to accuse him of murder when he rocks up at the wake. The total one-dimensional nature of Sarah is shameful and lazy – surely Alison Bechtel is scowling (please note she is alive and well and not in a snow-hole in the Andes).
This play has potential but it seems to have veered off-course. I wonder if it had emerged from a workshop and had to make do in a studio space somewhere, if it would have found its truth more readily? Was its core dramatic impetus lost due to the distractions of grandeur and big budget expectations? There are moments of rhythmic staging (including exposition about using an ice axe) that almost invite a musical in their visceral appeal and magnetism. Indeed, there is much delightful fodder in this production but it does not coalesce. As Stanislavski preaches, art is choice. The risk of Simpson’s source material is over-choice and it looks like Greig fell foul of this; he tucked into Joe Simpson’s buffet but failed to create a palatable meal. The dynamic of two men up a mountain with each others’ lives, literally, in each others’ hands is glossed over; the whodunit of a confrontation between sister and her brother’s ‘killer’ is trotted past; the charming gap-year kid (Richard, as played Patrick McNamee) intoning John Martyn as the cerebral expression of Simon and Joe’s physical compulsions just fades out before the sentence is finished.
With very cute actors and lots of physical angst, Touching the Void may have teen/young adult appeal, but I doubt this production will be remembered as a high point of theatre even if it sells tickets. Resplendent with action but devoid of drama; every theatrical jumping-off point in this show is an emotional dead-end if not a lonely, cavernous void of the type the script hints at but never explores.
Review by Mary Beer
Directed by the award-winning Tom Morris (War Horse) and based on Joe Simpson’s best-selling memoir, turned BAFTA-winning film, this extraordinary story charts Joe Simpson’s and Simon Yates’ struggle for survival on the perilous Siula Grande mountain in the Peruvian Andes.
Life-affirming and often darkly funny, David Greig’s thrilling adaptation of Touching The Void takes the audience on an epic adventure that asks how far you’d be willing to go to survive.
TOUCHING THE VOID
Based on the book by Joe Simpson
Adapted by David Greig
Fiona Hampton will play Sarah.
Patrick McNamee will play Richard.
Josh Williams will play Joe.
Angus Yellowlees will play Simon.
Duke of York’s Theatre
St Martin’s Lane, Charing Cross, London WC2N 4BG
Saturday 9th November 2019 – Saturday 29th February 2020