Tuesday, 1 June 2021

REVIEW: Touching the Void at the Bristol Old Vic (Online)

Having seen Touching the Void at the Duke of York Theatre in November 2019, I was intrigued by how it would translate to the small screen in Bristol Old Vic’s live broadcast from their stage with a live vision mix and an audience in the 250-year-old Theatre. Director Tom Morris introduced the show and welcomed viewers from across the world and warned if anything goes wrong, they intended to stop the show in what he called an “experimental and exciting” evening. He should have had no such fears as the show works well on screen, indeed the second half is actually improved by the capture through multiple cameras.

It is curious that a story can be so dramatic when we already know the outcome going into the show. This is a tale of epic real-life human endeavour in a life-or-death situation as a climber, Joe Simpson, desperately attempts to survive on the remote Siula Grande mountain in the Andes with a minimum of supplies and a broken leg. It has already been a book and a film (2003), so it presents Director Tom Morris with a challenge to keep us gripped and engaged. There are plenty of very creative and imaginative ideas and designer Ti Green brings the tale to life and enables the explanation of the motivation for climbing Alpine style to be illustrated and dramatic in a clever theatrical way.

The pub furniture of the Clachay Inn in Scotland becomes the rock faces and terrain of the mountain range and a peanut as a climber puts the scene in dramatic context and scale. When the climbers start their ascent to the top of the mountain an artistically designed metal frame covered in white paper effectively shows the effort and risks of a rock face traverse and brilliantly shows how they carve a snow hole for shelter overnight. The dream sequences that keep him going are in good contrast with a strong music underscore. Movement Director Sasha MIlavic Davies creates a brilliant evocative sequence of dance on how they climb with pickaxes. 

On stage in the second half, Joe spends much of the time on prone of the stage floor in the half-light which was very hard to view and engage with from a seat in the stalls but becomes wonderfully more dramatic with the close-ups and overhead shots enabled by the capture. The isolation and dream sequences become more intimate, and you begin to will him on in his desire for survival. The crossfades and overlays of characters adds to the storytelling and the dream sequences.

The cast of four works hard in an intensely physical performance climbing the proscenium arch and dangling off the flying structures and are faultless. The harsh conditions Joe and Simon face as they climb together is coldly and heartbreakingly explained and acted. We see the strong bond between Joe (Josh Williams) and his sister. Fiona Hampton is excellent as Sarah, the imagined voice in Joe’s head guiding us through his ordeal as she learns about climbing and the challenges faced. Simon is played by Angus Yellowlees and he captures the cold emotions required for survival and the dreadful dilemma he faced. Patrick McNamee is Richard, the nerdy and ever cheerful third member of the expedition who provides observations and asides on the story and is the voice of the story adapter David Greig.

The outcome of the story is not in doubt, and it is no plot spoiler to say that the Climber Joe Simpson survived to write the book on which the play is based. The play challenges the audience to think “what would I do” if faced with the same difficult choices? The camera shots make you feel closer to the action and more involved in the decisions each climber faces.

The brilliance of the acting, the uplifting feeling of human survival against the odds and the creativity and inventiveness of the staging makes this worth seeing and the Director of Photography Jamie Hobbs and sound and broadcaster designer Simon Baker wonderfully sustain its engagement and brilliance until the end through the capture in a way the stage show failed to do.

Review by Nick Wayne

Rating: ★★★★

Seat: Online | Price of Ticket: £15
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