This isn’t a sponsored post.
BrumHour was invited to see Touching the Void online via Birmingham Rep performed and broadcast at Bristol Old Vic.
By Eleanor Lawson twitter.com/Elle_Lawson
Online Review: Touching the Void via Birmingham Rep at Bristol Old Vic
Directed by Tom Morris, Written by David Greig Based on the book by Joe Simpson
I’ll go with you, then,
Since you must play this game of ghosts’To One Who Was With Me in the War, Siegfried Sassoon
Touching The Void is at Bristol Old Vic until 29th May and available to watch online.
Touching the Void is a play of ghosts: the ghosts of the climbers who never managed to get back down the mountain, and the spectral figures that Joe hallucinates on his agonising journey who refuse to let him die. And we, as the audience, agree to go along with him, to bear witness to his plight. Climbing is a communal pursuit in Touching the Void, making it a perfect story for Theatre: climbers do their expeditions together, do everything they can to save each other when in peril, share their stories in pubs – which climbers spend most of their time in, it seems. When Joe is presumed dead, his sister Sarah learns to climb and traverses the psychology of a climber in an attempt to understand the love that drove her brother to the ends of the earth. That drove him to death – or so he thinks.
This Game of Ghosts is in fact the sequel to Joe Simpson’s biography, Touching the Void, the phenomenon which has sold over one million copies worldwide. The biography and subsequent play introduce us to Joe Simpson (played by Josh Williams) and Simon Yates (Angus Yellowlees), two climbers who attempt the Siula Grande in the heart of the Peruvian Andes, only for the worst scenario imaginable to happen. Joe falls and shatters his leg, and while the two attempt a slow decline down the mountain, Simon inadvertently lowers Joe off the edge of a cliff, leaving him hanging in mid-air. After an agonising hour and a half of trying to pull Joe back up while completely blind and deaf in a snowstorm, Simon decides to cut the rope, dropping Joe to the bottom of a crevasse. Everyone believes Joe to be dead, and what follows is an otherworldly show of human will to survive.
Josh Williams is a show-stopper as Joe, you completely believe half of the bones in his body are shattered as he writhes across the stage with guttural moans, his face glistening with sweat. You are with him every step of the way. As is the phantom of his sister, Sarah, urging him on with each blood-curling step, bringing him back home. Fiona Hampton’s Sarah, while not in the book Touching the Void, anchors a beating bleeding heart to the play, and in one of its most moving moments, Simon teaches Sarah to climb, erodes her distain for climbing by taking her to the very core of mountaineering. Many audience members will feel the same ambivalence or condescension towards climbing as Sarah does, but the characters’ joy is completely infectious. Humans have been climbing since before we were physically human. It’s an innate skill – or at least, this play has led me to believe that, that it’s one of the most exhilarating things in the world.
This isn’t a tragic story, indeed it’s wickedly funny at time, with rocks shaped like Thatcher’s hair-do and Terry Wogan, and quips that raise a fantastic howl from the live audience like ‘Don’t get comfortable, Joe’ ‘I am so far from comfortable sis’.
This isn’t a play you’ll have to suffer through. It’s a feast for the senses, with intimate soundscaping and a beautiful use of scenery to emulate the ragged cliff-face and the sense of doom that awaits with any wrong movement. The vivid present that theatre creates is a perfect fit for Touching the Void, leaving the audience hanging in thin air just like Joe.
And how wonderful it is to be back. Bristol Old Vic’s Artistic Director, Tom Morris, opens the show, in “The most beautiful theatre in England” (Daniel Day-Lewis) and the “loveliest theatre in the world” (Peter O’Toole), where women have played Hamlet and Othello, a theatre with 250 years of theatrical history. A game of ghosts indeed. With viewers watching online in Oslo, Sri Lanka, Canada, and the length and breadth of Britain, Morris asked the in-person audience to help convey the intimacy of theatre through the recording, a reminder of what makes theatre so uniquely special. There’s a lovely democracy of theatre-watching too, with a promise that if the live stream stops at any point, the whole show will re-start so everyone gets to watch it together.
While Joe’s journey has a nail biting propulsion to it, there’s also a philosophical heart to the piece of the life-changing way of looking at the world that mountaineering, and being close to death, brings you. In a pre-show talk, author Joe Simpson talks of the new-found spirituality that climbing gifted him, as he sat atop mountains packed rich with fossils, whose dizzying peaks had once lurked on the sea-bed. There’s no light-pollution on the tops of mountains, and every star dazzles on a pitch-black sky of velvet. How can that not change the way you live your life, seeing the ghosts that walked before you? How brief our time really is. That shows why, even on the periphery of life, we will struggle and pant for every pulsing heartbeat, how we will fight with every last breath to survive.
Touching the Void is presented via Birmingham Rep, performed and broadcast at Bristol Old Vic until 29th May. Book tickets here: birmingham-rep.co.uk/whats-on/touching-the-void.html