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In London’s West End 2019: Touching the Void at the Duke of York’s Theatre (Review)

★★★☆☆ (Performance attended 2/12/19)
Innovative staging depicting the perils of mountain climbing marred by a dragged out storyline. 

LONDON – Much like other extreme sports, alpine climbers lead dangerous lives as they scale one precarious mountain after another, constantly seeking out the next adrenaline rush with a taller mountain with each expedition. It’s no surprise that plenty of them eventually end up dying in climbing-related accidents, with them knowing full well the risks involved.

For mountaineer Joe Simpson, his own story of survival is nothing short of a miracle, as he crawled his way back to base camp over three days with no food or water, after being presumed dead following a fall down a crevasse in the Siula Grande mountain in the remote Peruvian Andes. Often regarded as one of the most remarkable tales of survival against the odds, Simpson’s story has since been adapted into a documentary feature film, and now, a stage play on the West End.

Adapted by David Greig and directed by Old Vic Bristol Artistic Director Tom Morris, the challenge of re-enacting the vicious conditions of mountaineering is no mean feat to accomplish within an enclosed theatre space. It is to the credit of set designer Ti Green, lighting designer Chris Davey, and sound designer Jon Nicholls then, that Touching the Void is a remarkable feat of theatrical design that achieves this with gusto. To represent the Siula Grande mountain, a metallic sculpture (resembling building scaffolding) has been constructed, and is suspended from the fly bar above the stage.

Actors Josh Williams (as Joe) and Edward Hayter (as fellow climber Simon) literally climb this structure over the course of the play, struggling as they scale it, each time their boots step down onto a new part of the ‘mountain’ creating the sound of ‘snow’ moving underfoot as they ascend, contributing to the realism of the piece. Even the stagehands are bundled up in thick clothing suitable for blizzards, covering their faces while still being in theme with the play.

Joe screams, before his sister Sarah (Fiona Hampton) emerges onstage. It is as if she is appearing in his state of mind, arriving to share her grief with the audience. It begins in a pub where the group is gathered, a place where climbers meet before beginning their ascent. Sitting across from Simon, Sarah asks why it is that they choose to climb, even knowing how dangerous it is. Simon explains the thrill of climbing, and expresses it as he rearranges tables and chairs to form the side of a mountain. Sarah then tries to climb this structure, and realises the exhilaration that comes with climbing. Nevertheless, she cannot suppress the notion that it doesn’t make sense to tempt death, before expressing how she feels Joe remains alive, despite being presumed dead.

Much of the drama in Touching the Void then takes place on the ‘mountain’, as Joe and Simon climb the mountain. We watch as they scale it, reach the peak and celebrate, but are forced to rush down again with a fast-depleting supply of water and bad weather coming in. The drama naturally ensues from the obstacles and high-stress situation that results, and in the midst of climbing down, Joe even breaks his right leg. As Simon attempts to belay Joe back to the ground, a sudden blizzard reduces visibility to almost zero, and as Simon calls out for Joe, he does not respond. Unable to hold on to Joe anymore, for fear of both of them falling off, Simon cuts the rope, Joe falls, and is left for dead.

But we learn that Joe is in fact, barely alive despite having fallen into the crevasse, and fights for his life. What follows is the primary problem the play faces: as we watch Joe figure out an alternative route of escape back to camp, he begins to hallucinate his sister Sarah by his side, herself not at all an expert on mountain-climbing, yet she is there to give him ‘advice’ and see him through. This close sibling relationship is hardly developed at all prior to this scene, and feels like an attempt at emotional resilience that was shoe-horned into the script.

Touching the Void’s success is held back by a draggy script and an uninteresting protagonist in Joe. For most of the play, one doesn’t know who to root for, be it Joe and Simon as climbers against the odds, or to invest in the patchy sibling relationship Joe imagines in his time of greatest need, or even the significance of Richard (Patrick McNamee). As a result, many potentially powerful moments over the play fail to hit the emotional sweet spot.

However, credit where it is due, and the team behind this work have succeeded at recreating the thrill and danger of mountain-climbing within the enclosed space of the theatre. Coupled with strong performances from Edward Hayter, Fiona Hampton and Patrick McNamee, and Touching the Void ends up telling a simple but gruelling tale of survival, beautifully brought to life by impressive stage design and innovative direction. As Joe finally crawls back to the campsite, gasping to be heard, Simon sees him, barely alive, and we feel a sense of relief after the odyssey of an adventure Joe has been put through.

Photo Credit: Tristram Kenton

Touching the Void runs till 29th February 2020 at the Duke of York’s Theatre, London. Tickets available from their website

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