HighTide Festival, Aldeburgh – until 18 September 2016
Then Birmingham Rep (20-24 Sep) & Soho Theatre, London (27 Sep-29 Oct)
TWO UP A MOUNTAIN, ONE LOOKING UP IN ANGER… From Wales to this easternmost festival Tamara Harvey – newish artistic director of Theatr Clwyd – brings a new play by Elinor Cook. It’s about two young men – celebrated climbers, Everest-conquerors, bonded buddies – and their interaction with a young woman engrossed in a PhD about “folk songs, war, travel, heroes, the romantic era..”. Indeed, by the sound of it a bit of a muddle: one is not especially surprised at the later suggestion that her academic entanglement between the ballad Tam Lin, colonialism and feminist theory is running into the sand.
They’re very watchable, though: Amanda Wilkin Roche, striding, bubbling, confident, is Rachel. In a punchy opening she is conversing, in imagination, with the men as one (Stefan Donnelly as the exuberant Will) lies apparently dying 18,000 feet up on a mountain with Dan (a quieter Jack Monaghan) at his side. Sometimes one or other of the cast becomes a narrator, delivering stage directions “Two men alone on a mountain. Tall, Caucasian..” “He hands her a gift” or moving us back and forward in time – “Six weeks earlier”. Sometimes this experimentalism works, and keeps you focused; at other moments it distracts, as if the three of them were enacting some sort of moral fable which we should listen to for our own good, rather than lose ourselves in.
This tone, indeed, is the weak spot of an otherwise ingenious play, nicely staged on a flat jagged platform enabling the lithe, spidery chaps to express the edginess of their mountain trade. We discover in the flashbacks that Rachel was first the girlfriend of one, then of the other; that they each in their own way find it impossible to give up the dangerous life though she might have got Dan to try; and that she suffers both a fascination and a revulsion about their heroic ideals. There is a sudden anti-colonialist rant from Rachel – who is black, which I suppose is the point here – about “cruel arrogant wicked people in helmets and medals who dared to impose their way of life..” Later on, when the disaster has happened on The Last Climb, she translates this into feminist relationship outrage worthy of a Rob-and-Helen Archers storyline – “ Sometimes it felt like an invasion. I was losing whole chunks of land to you”. And “Must there always be a girl, must she always be the prize?”.
Both good points, but neither sharp enough to hurt; nor are the men drawn with much conviction. There are two sorts of passionate mountaineers – the conquerors, who score summits and routes – and the romantics, who find more joy in their beauty. This pair appear to be the first, and therefore don’t quite fit the romantic PhD; but we’re still not sure what goes on in their minds. In other words, it’s all about Rachel, and the poorer for that. But Elinor Cook can certainly write, and I look forward to whatever she does next.
http://www.hightide.org.uk transferring next to Yard Theatre and Theatr Clwyd Cymru