'Touching the Void': Theater Review

Michael Wharley
'Touching the Void'
A richly reimagined spectacle.
2/29/2020

'War Horse' co-director Tom Morris brings a new stage version of Joe Simpson's mountain survival memoir to the West End following its acclaimed launch last year.

First published in 1988, Joe Simpson's mountaineering disaster memoir Touching the Void became an international best-seller, later inspiring Kevin MacDonald's hit 2003 docudrama of the same name. Now the Tony-winning English director Tom Morris (War Horse) and prolific Scottish playwright David Greig have reworked this nail-biting true story into a kinetic stage production, which has just transferred to the West End following a critically acclaimed premiere run last year at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre, where Morris is artistic director.

Grounded in superb set, sound and lighting design, Touching the Void balances grand technical spectacle with black humor and somber commentary on the harrowing moral choices thrown up by extreme life-or-death situations. Breaking free from its literary and cinematic blueprints, this production feels very much like its own stand-alone artwork, with Greig adding a streak of irreverent comedy while Morris draws resourcefully on his experimental theater past. Even if some of the straighter dramatic scenes feel a little wooden, this highly physical reimagining works resoundingly well as a gripping, richly layered multimedia spectacle.

Young British mountaineers Joe Simpson (Josh Williams) and Simon Yates (Angus Yellowlees) make a pact to tackle a previously unclimbed route up the west face of the Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes, 21,000 feet high and widely regarded as the deadliest mountain in the Americas. Their high-risk ascent proves successful but, on the way down, Simpson breaks his leg. Risking both their lives in lethal cold and swirling blizzards, Yates manages to lower Simpson down most of the way. But with communication impossible, and Simpson apparently unresponsive, Yates is eventually forced to make the pragmatic decision to save himself by cutting the rope. Far below, Simpson plunges into a crevasse. Left for dead, miles from base camp with a broken leg, no food, killer temperatures and zero rescue options, his chances of survival are minimal.

For this production, Greig has boldly reshaped the basic story into a form he calls a "fantasia," framing the action onstage as the feverish visions of Simpson's delirious, pain-wracked mind as he hovers in deep-freeze purgatory between life and death. This inspired remix not only marks a clear stylistic break from the book and film versions, but it also allows Greig and Morris to play fertile diversionary tricks with counterfactual hallucinations, speculative fabrications and unreliable narrators. This approach should prove especially effective for audiences unfamiliar with the original Siula Grande mission, because it leaves the question of Simpson's survival open until the final scene. Even for viewers who know the outcome, the mounting sense of jeopardy generated onstage is impressively visceral.

By embracing non-naturalistic psychodrama, Greig also opens up the story to additional characters who had little or no connection to the original events. Nerdy base-camp assistant Richard (Patrick McNamee) and Simpson's sassy sister Sarah (Fiona Hampton) both serve as chorus figures and audience surrogates, their exchanges peppered with educational nuggets about various mountaineering styles and their associated risks. Richard is the weak point in the play, chiefly serving as a comic punching bag, and some of Greig's jokes at his expense feel clumsy. He dreams of writing a memoir called Avoiding the Touch, for example, which makes no sense except as a lame self-referential pun.

Although Williams and Yellowlees are slightly limited by banal dialogue and thin characterization, both prove their mettle with highly athletic performances during the mountaineering scenes. But it is Sarah who serves as the play's most forceful emotional anchor. Not only is her risk-averse, blunt-talking skepticism a welcome counterbalance to the reckless machismo of the climbers, she also visits a strikingly harsh form of tough love on Simpson as he hovers on the brink of death. Of all the four lead players, Hampton radiates the most depth and complexity. In an incidental but fascinating coda at the end of the play, Greig reveals that the real Sarah had no idea of her brother's ordeal on Siula Grande until weeks later because she was caught up in a real-world drama of her own, a hijacking crisis in Kashmir.

A central feature of this production is Ti Green's ingenious set design, most notably two giant floating geometric framework structures that serve as stylized representations of the Siula Grande peak and the glacier at its base. Suspended above the stage, tilting and rotating with stately precision, these striking pieces of mobile sculpture push the play almost into Abstract Expressionist territory. They are also durable enough to withstand plenty of punishment as Williams and Yellowlees traverse them vertically and horizontally, climb inside them, kick holes in them, plunge from atop them and disappear beneath them.

Morris and Greig also deploy some artfully lo-fi, human-scale touches, too, using tables and chairs from the play's opening Scottish pub location to represent alpine cliffs and treacherous rock formations. The highly charged score and nerve-jangling sound design by Jon Nicholls also help amplify the sense of looming tragedy. Meanwhile, a ghostly pub jukebox plays a mixtape of vintage pop songs from inside Simpson's scrambled memory, including Joy Division, The Pogues and John Martyn, with a particularly amusing musical cameo by German novelty-pop hit-makers Boney M.

Venue: Duke of York's Theatre, London
Cast: Fiona Hampton, Patrick McNamee, Josh Williams, Angus Yellowlees
Director: Tom Morris
Playwright: David Greig, adapted from the book by Joe Simpson
Set and costume designer: Ti Green
Lighting designer: Chris Davey
Music and sound designer: Jon Nicholls
Movement director: Sasha Milavic Davies
Presented by Ambassador Theatre Group, Bristol Old Vic, Edinburgh Royal Lyceum, Northampton Derngate, Fuel Productions