Director Tom Morris is attempting the impossible: to stage climber Joe Simpson’s extreme autobiographical hit, ‘Touching the Void.’ Adapted by David Greig, Morris hopes to tell a theatre audience the story of how one man came back from the dead.
‘Touching the Void’ is a story about loneliness and our human need to survive. Watching the documentary, I was so riveted by the story that I went out and bought the book. The gnawing question of ‘what would I have done?’ kept me up at night. Perhaps that is why it has become such a worldwide success.
As such, this production is ambitious to say the least. How was the Lyceum’s stage going to capture the beautiful mountain peaks, the unforgiving terrain and the freezing temperatures depicted in the original tale? It’s something I have never seen attempted before.
We are welcomed to the play by Joe’s sister Sarah (Fiona Hampton). She addresses the audience like we are a crowd at a wake – Joe’s wake. It becomes clear that we are simply part of Joe’s stream of consciousness; his hallucinations as oxygen escapes his brain. Dying alone in a glacier crevice, his thoughts centre around his bossy older sister and how much she would have killed him for getting into this mess. I enjoyed this new addition to the narrative. Sarah asked the questions we were all thinking: ‘Why do you do it?’ ‘Why risk your life?’ ‘How could you cut the rope?’
The actors certainly make use of every available space. They climb the sides of the stage using simply a table and chair, a harness and a piece of rope with a toilet sign as a glacier. A jukebox splutters into life every so often from the corner, mimicking Joe’s devolving consciousness with its incessant ‘Tra-la-la-la-la.’ The characters are continually sucked into darkness at the back of the stage, using different perspectives to convey ‘the void.’ Faceless stage hands in big orange parkas move eerily throughout the space. This is effective, but it did remind me a bit too much of South Park.
During Joe’s epic journey, a large, white, lattice structure hangs from the ceiling. The actors climb and dangle from it like flies in a web. The landscape comes alive, tilting and turning to shift our perspective. We are transported from the warm, cosy seats of the Lyceum into the harsh wilderness.
The sounds of blistering winds and cracking ice create the atmosphere, but it is Josh Williams’ Joe who made me believe. The audience winced at every step, we could almost feel his excruciating pain. Patrick McNamee also gave a stand-out performance as the geeky Richard. The audience really appreciated Richard. His sweet, cheerful, innocence allowing for light humour within such a serious play.
This huge gamble definitely paid off. Greig’s adaptation brings out a softer, more human side to Joe’s story. The dazzling set was something truly unique and the physicality of the actors, aside for a couple of awkward music numbers, reached perfection.
PHOTOS: Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh