Touring – reviewed at Royal & Derngate Theatre, Northampton
Theatre sometimes gives films – and books – a remarkable translation, making stories deeper, stranger, more tense. Maybe it is the very act of pretending: the shared collusion it takes to turn planks and cloth into a new world (a knack which marks everything director Tom Morris does).
Anyway, this is remarkable. We know the story of Joe Simpson’s book: climbing in the remotest Andes with his friend Simon Yates, he had a disastrous fall into an icy crevasse, smashing his leg and hip. Yates held him on the rope for 90 minutes, but could not pull him up and had not enough rope to let him down; he did the climbers’ unthinkable, terrifying forbidden thing and cut it before they both died of exposure and starvation. Which, as Simpson later acknowledged, ironically gave him a chance and a choice. Deep in the crevasse, even more injured, in pain and delusion he dragged himself towards a patch of light and found, astonishingly, a way out through the bitter moraine towards the base camp.
I missed it at the Bristol Old Vic for logistical reasons, but as colleagues in the travel-expenses cadre raved, hastily bought a ticket for its co-producing house in Northampton (it’s off to Scotland in January, Fuel’s third collaborators being the Lyceum).
The poet-playwright David Greig has adapted it with his usual imaginative, oddball brilliance, cleverly framing it by starting at an imagined wake for Simpson (Josh Williams) at the Clachaig Inn in Scotland. This enables the character of Simpson’s sister Sarah (Fiona Hampton), a furious, sorrowful goth, to express doubt and fury at the absurdity of the climbers’ Gore-Tex-and-crampon world, and to be persuaded by Simon (Edward Hayter) to understand the thrill and challenge of climbing – tipping tables and upturned chairs. Agile, scornful and intrigued, the girl outsider draws us into their world which is either “reaching for the heights of life”, or else “just another addiction”.
So does Patrick McNamee’s backpacking hippie Richard, who looked after their base-camp tents and was equally bemused by their dangerous pastime. He narrates, often, excitable and young, oddly suitable. The wake, of course, is part of the delirium through which the struggling Joe passes; later, Sarah reappears by his side, urging and mocking her beloved brother towards life.
The start draws us in, with no props beyond odd pub furniture, to a world, a brotherhood. Violent jarring shirrrrrrs take us in and out of imagined moments; there is a song, strangely effective. Then we are there, on Siula Grande: just a suspended structure of struts , rags and cloth, but curiously convincing as they clamber around it, dig a snowhole, hit the moment of disaster.
Sometimes Joe’s struggle is almost too painful to watch. Yet moments of universality and philosophy – ice-axes of startling script – keep us pinned to it, forgetting that we know the end already. There is a kind of dance; an interaction between sister and brother that moved my heart more deeply even than the imminence of death. Joe’s near-death brings strangeness, reflection on the animal resistance to dying and the danger of its “surprisingly nice” warmth. But from that, to live, a struggler must be dragged back in pain. Adventure, life, death, youth and hope lie all before us on the simplest of stage.
royalandderngate.co.uk to 20 Oct, hurry.
In Edinburgh and Inverness early 2019