Touching the Void
Duke of York’s Theatre
Reviewed – 15th November 2019
“does not lack suspense, or imaginative touches in the staging”
Adapting Joe Simpson’s epic tale of survival on the Peruvian Siula Grande mountain for the theatre is no easy task. But then playwright David Greig, like mountaineer Simpson, is not the kind of man to avoid a challenge just because it’s difficult, or has never been done before. Nevertheless, theatres, like mountains, are well known for the unexpected ways in which they can put obstacles in the paths of even the most gifted. This revival of Greig’s play at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London just misses a chance at greatness.
Greig was invited to produce a play script of Touching the Void after director Tom Morris, inspired by Simpson’s book, and the BAFTA winning film of the same title, wanted to adapt it for the stage. Sensibly opting against a naturalistic interpretation, Greig wrote instead a “mythic reading of a real event”. He changes the sequence of events—beginning instead with an imagined wake for Joe after he has been left for dead on the mountain. Greig also brings on board a new character, Sarah, Joe’s sister, who in reality had died some years before Joe and climbing partner Simon Yates make their climb (Greig obtained Simpson’s permission to write in Sarah). These changes serve as powerful attention getters; Sarah herself becomes an important part of Joe’s fight for survival in the second half of the show. And then there is the non-human force, the Void, which could be interpreted as the mythic antagonist against which Joe and Simon must battle to win the mountain, and live to tell the tale.
Touching the Void does not lack suspense, or imaginative touches in the staging. Watching actors Josh Williams (Joe) and Angus Yellowlees (Simon) climb all over Ti Green’s ingenious set is exciting, though the climbing accolades should probably go to Fiona Hampton (Sarah) when she takes an impromptu climbing lesson by scrambling up a “mountain face” composed entirely of pub tables and chairs haphazardly attached to the wall downstage right. It’s moments like these that emphasise the theatricality of director Tom Morris’ production, but they can only do so much in holding the audience’s attention throughout the entire play.
The choice of venue for this revival reveals the weaknesses in the script. Even with the actual proscenium arch removed, the Duke of York’s is still a problematic space for a play that cries out to be performed, at the very least, on a more flexible stage. Script wise, it’s clever of Greig to use the character of Sarah to propel the drama forward (she is the one that insists her brother cannot be dead, and goes in search of him) but the play still devolves into a belaboured enactment of Joe’s painful struggle back to base camp in the second, with Sarah becoming a product of his fevered imaginings as he hovers between life and death. From a seat in the stalls at the Duke of York’s, it is hard to see Joe in the second half, because he spends so much time flat on the stage floor. Greig’s dramatisation of the Void, a force that cannot be seen even though we see its effects on the characters, is a brilliant touch, but the ethereal nature of its presence makes it an unreliable source for narrative clarification. And finally, it is impossible to avoid the distancing effect that a picture frame stage places upon audiences watching actors come to grips simultaneously with intimate scenes set against vast panoramas.
Reviewed by Dominica Plummer
Photography by Michael Wharley
Touching the Void
Duke of York’s Theatre until 29th February
Previously reviewed at this venue: