BWW Interview: Josh Williams Talks TOUCHING THE VOID at Duke Of York's Theatre
After a premiere at Bristol Old Vic, and a tour including Inverness and Hong Kong, Touching the Void is now at the Duke of York's Theatre in the West End.
Writer David Greig and director Morris have managed the astonishing feat of translating to stage the story of Joe Simpson, who was stranded in the Peruvian Andes after his climbing partner Simon Yates had to make the terrible decision to cut the rope connecting them.
BroadwayWorld spoke with Josh Williams about the physical intensity demanded by the show and how it depicts the men who set their minds on scaling these mountains.
Why do you decide to take on a project?
There are a lot of different things. Often it begins with being sent a script from my agent and seeing if I have a connection with the work. It's about thinking if you can do justice to the role. Inevitably, some parts aren't necessarily for you. That's all part of the process.
What were your first thoughts when you read this script?
I knew the story before, so when I got the call about the show from my agent I was instantly pretty excited. I then revisited the book, but we didn't have a script until the first read-through in Bristol, when I'd already accepted the project.
What excites you about theatre?
I love the aliveness of it and the instant gratification. It's ever-changing and audience reactions are always different. It means it doesn't get boring, and that's exciting from an acting perspective.
What other types of research did you do for the role?
Delving into the world of climbing was important from the beginning. That's one of the topics in the play: why do people go to these remote places and put their lives at risk? Having not done any serious climbing myself, I was keen to get that interest and answer those questions. Understanding what drives people to do those things; many people who do ordinary jobs rarely do extreme things, and it can be hard to understand why mountaineers do it. As a company in Bristol, we did some climbing on the Avon Gorge. We got used to having the shared trust.
Were you surprised by anything in particular during this research?
One of the things that really resonated with me was how climbing strips everything away: anything that might have been important to your daily life suddenly is put into perspective when you're up a mountain. If you've got 300 likes on an Instagram picture, or whether you were late at work, they all fall away, and the immediacy of what you're doing and completing the task at hand becomes paramount.
You've not been tempted to take up social climbing as part of the show, then?
I would love to go off and do some climbing - obviously not the extent we show on this piece. These mountains are often in places that aren't tourist destinations, so you're going to places that not many people have been to, and that also appeals.
How do you think you would cope in the situation of the play?
That's part of the allure of the story, I think. You can sit and wonder "What would I do in that situation?". People go off and survive these events, and there's something in human nature that finds it interesting: it's the story of the returning soldier. Honestly, I don't really know, and you can't say until you're actually in that situation. Everyone has a survival instinct - whether you have the skills determines if you will or not. As humans, we will fight a lot harder than we first realise.
Is it difficult to work through such a traumatic show each night?
It's a physically and emotionally taxing role. I suppose it's just about having some downtime after the performance. Vocally it's strenuous, so I do an extensive cool down at the end. That's all part of having some time apart to cool down mentally as well.
How does this show compare to previous productions you've worked on?
It's so physical, and having done plays set around dinner tables or in the family home, spending a play dragging myself across the stage meant I needed a level of physical fitness I didn't necessarily have at the beginning. I spent time in the gym. If my body can't keep up with the acting, then it's not doing the work justice.
What have you learnt about the show as it has toured?
It's ever-changing, and that ties into your earlier question about loving theatre. The show we have now is far different to what we had in Bristol, and it may well be different at the end of our run in the Duke of York's.
Do you enjoying touring?
I hadn't actually done such an extensive tour before this. It's amazing to see how a piece is perceived in different places. We did the show in Edinburgh and then we went to Inverness, and then to Hong Kong. The way the play was received each time was so different. The audiences found things amazing or harrowing in different parts. Seeing how geography affects an audience's reaction was interesting.
How is this play relevant today?
This is a story that has been in the public consciousness for many years, and it will continue to be so. It's a story fundamentally about morality, struggling and the human will to survive. You can ask "Would I cut the rope?". I think the story is relatively timeless and relatable.
If the play is posing a question to the audiences, what is it and do we get an answer?
This play asks many questions, one of which is "What would you do?". More broadly, it asks why people go off and do things that are incredibly dangerous. These men went with the knowledge that if they failed they would die. That question is asked by [Joe Simpson's sister] Sarah, who brings it up throughout the show. You do get an answer: Joe and Simon try and vocalise why they do it and the thrill they receive.
Who would you like to work with in the future?
I would love to work with Adrian Lester: I saw him in Red Velvet at the Tricycle years ago. I also saw Ken Stott years ago at the Duke of York's in A View from the Bridge, and I was blown away. When it toured, it came to a venue near me and I asked my mum to get us tickets to see it again. It inspired me to be an actor, and it's such a privilege now being able to be on this stage.
Have you got a place you'd like to work?
The National Theatre is the top of the hit list. The work they put on is consistently amazing. I also love working at the Royal Court.
If you could see a change in the industry in the coming years, what would it be?
I would like to see more people of colour in administrative roles in theatre. Growing up, I was lucky enough to always be told I could achieve my goals as long as I worked hard. For some people, that might not be what they hear, and then, if you're lucky enough to go to the theatre, if you don't see anyone that looks like you, you don't think it's possible to do it yourself. That's what I would like to see changed.
Photograph credit: Michael Wharley.