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Review: TOUCHING THE VOID, Duke of York's Theatre

Touching the VoidHow can you possibly put Joe Simpson's account of his hellish mountaineering accident on stage? Curiosity alone might well draw in viewers for this new adaptation, which premiered last year at Bristol Old Vic - swiftly followed by awe at the inventiveness of writer David Greig and director Tom Morris.

Touching the VoidBack in 1985, experienced British climbers Simpson and Simon Yates attempted to scale the west face of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes - something that had never been done before, or since. But when Simpson fell and broke his leg, Yates was faced with a terrible choice, and what followed was an astonishing fight for survival.

Though it must have been tempting for the creative team to rely on video projections of snowy peaks and dark crevasses, or a big company wielding numerous props, this is instead a focussed, stripped-back piece, using mainly just a quartet of actors, everyday items like tables and chairs, and - vitally - an exceptional piece of scenery by Ti Green.

This levitating, rolling, jagged shard to which the men cling, buffeted by wind and snow, is part literal evocation of a mountain, part alien creature that takes us into the climber experience - both physical and psychological. That's key to this production's approach, and it's very effective, using theatre's intimacy and immersion to explore this story in a very different way to Simpson's bestselling book and the big-screen docudrama.

What does make someone want to do this? Is it a death wish, an escape, or a way of embracing life and the world around us? Greig introduces a new framing for the tale, with events being related to Simpson's sister Sarah - which means that us non-climbers can, through Sarah, learn the lingo, understand the enormity of the climb, and get insight into what these men were thinking and what pushed them to go on.

It's a canny intervention, since the climber vernacular is one of self-effacement and dry understatement - understandable as a coping mechanism, but less helpful in dramatic terms. It also means the production can balance its more harrowing moments with dark humour, such as when a delirious Simpson is visited not by angelic choirs, but by a pop song that pisses him off.

Inevitably, the most thrilling section is when Simpson is first injured, through to the moment when Yates realises he has to cut the rope connecting them. Jon Nicholls' soundscape is indelible - I can still hear the screech of axe on unforgiving ice, and the horrific crunching of bone. It's queasily good, edge-of-your-seat theatre.

The tension then dissipates somewhat in the too-long second half; though Simpson's feat is hugely impressive, it's less interesting to watch play out on stage, especially when we know the outcome. Simpson hallucinating Sarah works to a certain extent, externalising his experience for us, though it does start to feel like the only female character is being used as a prop.

However, Sasha Milavic Davies' movement direction helps demonstrate how climbing, at this level, has an element of dance to it, and, though these aren't exactly the most introspective blokes, we do get a sense of the wonder they feel on that slope when they view the world in a way no one else ever has.

The play is even-handed about the central crisis, with Yates making a strong case for his actions in an unthinkable situation. But it doesn't really interrogate their decision, in the first place, to attempt this monstrous climb 'Alpine style' - with very little kit and no back-up should things go wrong. Instead, their macho heroism is contrasted with the bumbling friend they make at base camp, gap year student and aspiring novelist Richard (a funny and vivid performance from Patrick McNamee).

If Simpson remains in some ways opaque, Josh Williams nevertheless conveys his physical distress and absolute determination with great commitment, while Angus Yellowlees captures Yates's mix of pragmatism and guilt, and, as Sarah, Fiona Hampton really powers the story - though that in itself perhaps points to a structural problem.

Still, this is an admirable feat of ingenuity, and, in tackling the impossible, very much echoes its subject. A triumph of the human spirit, and of theatre's capacity to go anywhere, show anything - and to draw us into the heart of a great story.

Touching the Void at the Duke of York's Theatre until 29 February, 2020

Photo credit: Michael Wharley

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Marianka Swain was UK Editor-in-chief of BroadwayWorld. A London-based theatre critic and arts journalist, she also contributes to other outlets such as the Telegraph, The i Paper, Ham & H... (read more about this author)

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