While participating in a regular forum to discuss theatre recently the questions arose what is the essential difference between film and theatre and which category does online theatre really fall into? Caroline (driving force behind the popular Scenesaver website for filmed recordings of shows) has to regularly differentiate between the two when deciding whether to accept product for promotion. Essentially she explained the difference by using the following example – please forgive the rough paraphrase. In film if you want to show the actors on a mountain then you film the mountain. In theatre the mountain would have to be created using the power of the imagination. I don’t know whether she was thinking of the Bristol Old Vic’s production of Touching The Void, but if not she certainly should have been.
What an extraordinary narrative underpins this play. A true life story about surviving disaster in the Peruvian Andes constructed as a thrilling piece onstage in which two of the actors scale a mountain and get back down again although they very nearly don’t – apparently 80% of mountaineering accidents happen on the descent.
Based on the best-selling account of survivor Joe Simpson it starts somewhat incongruously at his wake. I thought I’d misremembered the fact that he was survivor, but this turned out to be a conceit by adapter David Greig in order to get us into the story. It is essentially a fever dream as Simpson lies stranded in a crevasse having been cut loose by his climbing partner Simon Yates. He imagines his sister Sarah turning up at a pub in the Cairngorms and meeting up with Simon and Richard; the latter was their base camp manager i.e., he looked after the tents while they were gone. For the pair decide to tackle a route up the mountain that nobody has ever attempted before and opt for climbing Alpine style which means minimising everything they take with them and that includes food, water and any form of shelter. Needless to say that when disaster strikes there is no way of communicating with the wider world.
It sounds like something that would be impossible to stage convincingly but as one of the themes of this play is all about achieving the impossible the production team were not going to let that put them off. Tom Morris, who also worked on the extraordinary War Horse, directs a crack team which uses lighting (Chris Davey) and sound (Jon Nicholls) to stunning effect. Ti Green’s mountain when it is finally revealed is a gasp inducing masterpiece of frameworking covered in paper/papier-mâché. And a particular mention goes to movement director Sasha Milavic Davies who gets the actors to contort themselves into the most mind bending positions and has novice Sarah scale the heights of the theatre stage via a series of pieces of furniture.
Indeed, Sarah is used as the entry into the mountaineering fraternity for us as viewers. She cannot understand her brother’s obsession with the sport and certainly hasn’t engaged with the specialist equipment and terminology before. Therefore, the questions she asks and the answers she receives mean that we too can follow what is going on. In the second half Sarah intriguingly becomes the goading and even physically abusing presence that drives Joe towards survival as he hobbles, crawls and drags himself down the mountain for three days and for five miles without sustenance and often without much hope.
Josh Williams and Fiona Hampton are magnificent as the siblings who share an indomitable spirit. We also get to share in the agonising decision which has to be made by Simon and the anguish that he endures after the event. It’s another finely wrought depiction from Angus Yellowlees who clearly demonstrates the horror of having to live with the decision he made even though it did not result in his partner’s death. Less successfully realised, though equally well performed by Patrick McNamee, is the drifter Richard who mostly seems to have been included to provide a sounding board character to whom the others can impart their thoughts. The quartet of performers clearly demonstrate a strong bond having been performing the piece since 2018; it is a very fine production to revive and I am glad to have finally caught up with this thrillingly staged real life story of facing mortality and winning.
In fact I think think that this filmed iteration might even have added something to the experience as a well thought out and clearly carefully rehearsed camera script meant that we could catch the action from a number of unusual angles including from above. The broadcast was preceded last night by Tom Morris (who is also artistic director of Bristol Old Vic) making a touching speech about welcoming a live audience back into the venue as well as acknowledging the worldwide audience who had tuned in on their home devices. He strongly suggested that first night streams of the venue’s future projects could well become the norm. If they are of this sort of quality, I say hurrah to that!