Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh – until 9 June 2017
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
There is an undeniable poetic charm to Blue Raincoat’s Shackleton, at the Traverse to Friday and touring to the Tron next week. The Sligo-based company’s latest touring show, seen here in its UK premiere, shows how the 1914 trans-Antarctic expedition of Irish-born polar explorer Ernest Shackleton comes to grief.
His ship Endurance is stranded in the ice of the Weddell Sea before even reaching Antarctica. His efforts to reach help are told almost entirely wordlessly, using physical theatre, puppetry, sound and projections. Appropriately for such an icebound tale, the storytelling unfolds at a rate that is positively glacial. At times the deliberate, repetitive movements are hauntingly effective; elsewhere, they seem more like an absurdist prank designed to test the audience’s patience.
Much of it has a definite fascination. There is some striking use of puppets, notably an illuminated boat constantly tossed in the stormy waters of the South Atlantic. Jamie Vartan’s design makes ingenious use of simple materials. Joe Hunt’s sound design is strikingly atmospheric, while Barry McKinney’s lighting is starkly affecting.
The cast – John Carty, Barry Cullen, Brian F Devany and Sandra O Malley – lack nothing in commitment. It is never clear which of them, if any, is representing Shackleton, but this is probably the point.
There is an attempt to rescue the story from the ‘Boy’s Own Paper’ tradition of individual heroism against the odds, instead making it a story of co-operation and collective effort, in which the power of the landscape is ultimately more important than the humans in it.
Unfortunately, this is undercut by the words that are projected at the beginning and end, which root the story firmly in the tradition of exploration as a matter of individual glory. They also provide a rather prosaic reinforcement of events, as if the audience cannot be trusted to follow what has taken place.
This highlights the two main drawbacks of the piece. First, that despite the effort of the cast and director Niall Henry, it constantly teeters on the edge of bathos. Second, that it seems unwilling to surrender totally to the demands of its chosen performance style, instead keeping one foot in the mundane.
The moments it most approaches the magical are when the movement becomes hypnotic, when it happens apparently for its own sake. Paradoxically, a show that some will find slow and repetitive might work better if it was longer, slower and more repetitive.