Review: TOUCHING THE VOID (Duke of York’s Theatre)

David Greig, the writer of this stage adaptation, notes in the programme how something strange happens to humans in moments of extremis. Greig references that when the body focuses entirely on survival, the human mind wanders into the recesses of memory and enters an almost dreamlike state.

This idea is the framework for Greig’s theatrical reimagining of Joe Simpson’s incredible 1988 memoir, recounting his and Simon Yates’ successful, but almost fatal climb of the Peruvian Andes in 1985. Beyond the original book, the story has since exploded into public consciousness, most famously via its critically-acclaimed documentary film released in 2003.

Following a string of horrendous circumstances on the descent from the summit of Siula Grande, Simpson, who had already broken his leg, fell off the cliffside into a deep crevasse and was, justifiably, assumed dead by his climbing partner. Nevertheless, Simpson, in a testament to the endurance of the human body and mind, somehow survived.

In reimagining the story in a theatrical context, TOUCHING THE VOID opens starkly with the imaginary wake of Joe Simpson. Joe’s sister, Sarah (played with gravitas by Fiona Hampton) stands to address the theatre audience as the mourners in the pub, drink in hand, in heartbreaking but furious denial about the death of her brother on the unforgiving mountain. As the play moves along, Sarah serves as the emotional surrogate between the play and the audience, as we both attempt to disseminate and understand the gut-churning sequence of events that lead to the apparent ‘death’ of Joe Simpson on Siula Grande.

Greig presents his version of this story as a memory play, with definite parallels to the framing of some of drama’s great works (Tennessee Williams’ THE GLASS MENAGERIE and Arthur Miller’s DEATH OF A SALESMAN immediately spring to mind). Although a modern story, Greig also chooses to delve into the inherent ancient-ness of the premise – the story of someone who comes back from the dead. As Greig describes in his production notes, “if you went back in time and sat around a campfire in a distant land… you could still tell the story of TOUCHING THE VOID and the shape of your story would still draw the listeners in.”

Director Tom Morris, perhaps best known for his work on the acclaimed stage adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s WAR HORSE, plays into his inherent ability to tell stories with absolute inventive theatricality. Without going into spoilers on how a mountaineering story of survival can even work on stage, Morris works with a theatrical bag of tricks destined to keep his audience in complete awe throughout. Coupled with Greig’s genius reinvention of the original material, it’s genuinely a thrill for even the most time-worn theatregoer.

TOUCHING THE VOID is bolstered by its hardworking young cast of actors. Fiona Hampton as Joe’s sister Sarah (a real character in Joe’s life but her fist incarnation in any adaptation of this story), enters as the de-facto lead, the weight of emotional consequence almost entirely resting on her. She’s supported superbly by recent drama school graduate Angus Yellowlees as Joe’s conflicted climbing partner Simon, Patrick McNamee as Richard, a gap-year tourist in South America who becomes unwillingly embroiled in the story, and finally understudy Andy Sellers as Joe, who provides an intensely physical and emotional performance as the hero of the piece.

The world of TOUCHING THE VOID is brought to incredible stage-life by set and costume designer Ti Green. Initially enclosed in the pub of Joe’s wake, the mountain is inventively put together with the use of the bar’s drab furniture. A turned-over table represents base camp. A bag of peanuts becomes a tent. A jukebox breathes life into the glacier Joe and Simon ascend on the way to the summit. Wooden chairs and tables are built into the proscenium, illustrating in clear detail the terrifying height of Siula Grande from Stalls to Gallery level. As the play propels forward in its thrilling narrative, the stakes become higher, and the visuals become real. No spoilers from here.

Jon Nicholls, who serves as composer and sound designer on the play, cleverly interweaves different musical styles into the piece, ranging from the sharp synth-led beats of the 1980s, to live folk music mirroring the dark ancient lure of the mountain in what is a perfectly pitched underscore to the narrative.

In reinterpreting the story for theatre, Greig and Morris have expertly and imaginatively crafted the memoir into a modern myth. For anyone who knew anything about TOUCHING THE VOID prior to this version, the idea of this particular story working on stage is, at its very minimum, incredibly difficult. You need to go and see for yourself how they pulled it off.

RATING: ★★

TOUCHING THE VOID runs at London’s Duke of York’s Theatre to 29th February 2020. Tickets are on sale now.

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