‘In nature's infinite book of secrecy, a little I can read’ Act I, Scene II, Antony and Cleopatra
The Bristol Old Vic theatre, plunged in darkness, becomes the crevasse in which Joe Simpson is trapped. With every tortuous scream the audience are submerged in his relentless battle for life and death on Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes.
Tom Morris, director of Touching the Void at the Bristol Old Vic, had big boots to fill. The 2003 film, based on Simpson’s bestselling memoir Touching the Void, depicting his near fatal expedition and remarkable escape from a crevasse with his friend Simon Yates in 1985, was a cinematic success. Yet the production goes beyond being a sole retelling of this terrifying battle for life, as, with the mountain not adopting centre stage, Morris is able to cast the attention on man and his interaction with nature. He asks why man turns to the physical world and explores the wilderness as ‘a reflection of our own unexamined longings and desires’ – an idea Cronon (a notable environmentalist) discusses in his essay The Trouble with Wilderness.
As immersive as it is, theatre can’t play with scale as much as cinematography can, and this was a challenge the play faced, especially as natures’ sublime beauty and terrifying omniety is portrayed so well in the film. I was therefore doubtful of how the play could fully depict this expedition. But, surprisingly, the staging is actually is what makes this play. The minimalist set powerfully reflects the bleakness. We, the audience, are held within this blackness in the shadow of a stark mountain structure -the darkness alleviated at points with stark illumination. We are therefore cast as the very wilderness which Simpson fears.
Despite the thought-provoking nature of the production, the play unravels slightly with the portrayal of Simpson’s tormenting hallucinations of his sister, as her endless screeches become annoying and seem to trivialise his pain. Nevertheless, the portrayal of the rest of the characters is succesful; the moral dimensions of Yates’ decision with Simpson to cut the rope are considered well and the portrayal of Richard, the ‘gap yah’ student on a hunt for adventure, provides light comic relief intermittently from the relentless intensity of the play.
However, it is Josh Williams, in the role of Joe Simpson, who impresses most, due to his outstanding portrayal of the physical suffering the friends endured, so much so that at times he seems to be the physical embodiment of Simpson. This, alongside the clever staging of the play, is the keystone to the play’s success.