Touching the Void at the Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh is a joint production between the theatre and Bristol Old Vic, Royal & Derngate, Northampton, and Fuel that not only tells a story that you want to be a part of, but tells it in an imaginative way that solves so many problems in making it suitable for a theatrical presentation.
“Touching the Void” is the story of two mountaineers, Joe Simpson and climbing partner Simon Yates and their attempt to be the first to climb a route on the West Face of Siula Grande (6,344m) in the Cordillera Huayhuash in the Peruvian Andes. This test of man against mountain was made even more difficult by the fact that the pair decided to climb the route “Alpine Style” with as little climbing kit with them as possible so as not to be slowed down by weight and also be closer to force of nature that was the mountain. This was a test of endurance that almost resulted in the deaths of both men. “Touching the Void” is also the title of the 1988 book and the 2003 film about these events.
If you are familiar with the book or the film then you know what happens here. If, like me, though you are not familiar with either (I only have a vague recollection of the news story at the time), then try not to Google the story or even read the theatre programme until after the show as so much of the power of this story as a theatrical production is down to David Greig’s (also Lyceum’s Artistic Director) insightful adaptation of this adventure. David Greig has a reputation for taking difficult to present subject matter and bringing it to the stage, and this time he has overcome many obstacles and still held my attention, and a packed theatre’s attention, for this production.
“Touching the Void” is by its subject matter a production that is always going to attract two types of people to it – climbers and non-climbers, and by default that means that some very basic climbing terms taking in equipment and “jargon” need to be somehow explained to non-climbers like myself in order to make the story more accessible. While I can understand that the climbers in the audience may find this a bit unnecessary, I can assure you that to someone like myself who does not climb (or even like heights), and the coldest thing I usually encounter is the freezer in the kitchen, it was not only needed, but done so with a skill that did not interrupt the flow of the story.
The biggest obstacles to this story as a theatre production are far larger ones. Everything in this story really starts with the crucial moment when Simon Yates, who is trying to bring an injured Joe Simpson back down the mountain while the two are tied together therefore sharing connected fates in tandem, realises that through a combination of worsening weather conditions and physical exhaustion he can no longer hold on any longer to his climbing partner. To him, Joe is almost certainly already dead (or soon will be) and if he does not cut the rope that binds the two of them together, he too will die. With one cut of the knife, the choice is made forever and Joe Simpson is cut free to the oblivion of a glacial crevice. Our story then focuses on the inner thoughts of loneliness, isolation and fact of an almost certain death that Joe now faces. Bringing these elements to stage was always going to be a challenge in its own right and as a reviewer I was curious how this was going to be achieved.
To tell any story without it being a monologue (and that would not have made good theatre here), you need at least two people to be interacting with one another, and David Greig skilfully gets around this problem by the introduction of Joe’s sister Sarah as both his consciousness and his “Spirit Guide”. The other major problem is a stage set that somehow works and gives us the impression of being on that mountain with Joe, and here designer Ti Green along with skilful sound and lighting creatives gives us very inventive solutions to the many problems they faced here. Skilful direction by Tom Morris of course also plays a large part in bringing all these elements together.
Like so many adaptations of any story, this is not a literal one at every step of the story, but one that allows the story to flow, and here enters that shifting world between the reality and fantasy of Joe’s consciousness that was heavily influenced by his physical surroundings and personal physical pain from his injuries. In this blurring world of the two worlds, Joe does have a sister called Sarah, but this Sarah is not a portrayal of her as a person (but used with Joe’s permission) and the role of the third adventurer in our story, Richard, is one with some creative licence to give the real Richard the privacy that he wants to have in his life, and Patrick McNamee is a very believable character here.
This story is at heart though about impossible choices that none of us ever know how we will react to until we are in that situation. Just how strong is that instinct for self-preservation and survival in all of us. Could you be Simon and cut that rope to save your own life when all other options were to you now exhausted? Who truly knows the answer to that question, and Edward Hayter as Simon gives us a solid performance of someone who not only has made that choice, but is clearly having difficulty coming to terms with us. Simon in this story is also the voice of all climbers in his explanation of the one question all us non-climbers ask – “Why do you do it?” There is of course no simple answer here, but I can understand the need to face a challenge, be part of nature, feel insignificant on a mountain and many other answers that Simon offered. Perhaps the one reason that most of us will identify with is to be able to step outside of the mundane existence of our normal daily routines and live life in colour rather than black and white.
Joe, played by Josh Williams, has the difficult task here of making us as an audience not only believe in him as a character on stage, but actually care enough about him to get involved in his story and his outcome, and Josh does all of this with skill. It does however take the story line to truly focus on Joe in Act II to allow Josh to really start to explore the sheer determination of Joe Simpson as a character. This is in the end what this story is about, the potential for a person to push themselves far beyond any physical and mental boundaries that they previously thought were possible for themselves.
Holding all of this story together though is Sarah, and Fiona Hampton is excellent in this role and for me, steals many of the scenes. Joe cannot speak directly to us as an audience, Sarah is his voice, and that is a very difficult role to play on stage.
Much of this story is of course Joe’s, but I would have liked to try and understand Simon a little more and find out just how his choice on the mountain to cut that rope had changed his life after the event. I think we could have benefited as an audience from after the event resolution here.
There is a “strong language” warning here for this production, and often that is enough to just switch me off from wanting to see a show, but here, it is not used excessively and when used is in context and with a reason, so don’t let that put you off going to see one of the best theatre productions that I have reviewed in a long time.
Review by Tom King