Touching the Void – Duke of York’s Theatre, London

Writer: David Greig, based on the book by Joe Simpson

Director: Tom Morris

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Mountaineer Joe Simpson catalogued the climb from hell in his 1988 memoir Touching the Void, the multi-million selling book which was turned into an award-winning documentary film. Now it is the turn of theatre to tell the story of two climbers’ disastrous attempt to scale the west face of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes.

David Greig’s adaptation, which first premiered at Bristol Old Vic in 2018, takes as its framing device a confession in Simpson’s memoir in which, stuck at the bottom of a crevasse, dehydrated and facing hypoxia, he began to hallucinate. Greig turns this into a fantasia in which Joe (Josh Williams) begins to hallucinate his own wake.

This allows Joe’s sister Sarah (Fiona Hampton), who knows nothing about climbing, to interact with her brother’s climbing partner Simon (Angus Yellowlees) and Patrick McNamee’s Richard, a gap year hippie they met in Peru and who looked after their basecamp as the duo climbed.

Richard is a fictional construct created for the play, and as such becomes the principal proponent of Greig’s injection of humour. He also becomes a walking encyclopaedia for the history of climbing; while Yellowlees instructs Hampton as to the physical aspects of mountaineering, commandeering pub tables and windows to provide obstacles, McNamee waxes about the virtues of “alpine style” climbing – carrying the minimal amount of equipment in order to make the swiftest, if riskiest, ascent.

But it is only until the recreation of Simon and Joe’s ascent that Touching the Void begins to grasp the enormity of their task. Ti Green’s set conjures up a suspended framework of metal and paper that shifts and tilts to recreate the challenges the climbers face, Williams and Yellowlees scrambling across and up it as McNamee narrates their travails.

And this is also a point at which director Tom Morris’s staging begins to get in the way of Greig’s script. Composer Jon Nicholls creates a thumping drum and bass soundtrack that, as underscoring, helps propel the sense of urgency and danger as the pair, having ascended the mountain, encounter difficulties on the way down. However, as the situation becomes perilous – Joe breaking his leg in a fall, meaning Simon has to lower his partner down the mountainside 300 feet at a time – the underscoring becomes cacophonous, drowning out the actors’ dialogue to their, and the play’s detriment.

Other issues emerge during the play’s second act, as Williams’s Joe spends much of the time either lying on the stage floor or crawling slowly across it. The Duke of York’s seating rake means that stalls audiences are particularly vulnerable to having their view obscured by anyone of taller-than-average height sitting any number of rows in front (or, in this reviewer’s case, a particularly bouncy audience member directly in front, trying to alleviate her own sightline issues).

It doesn’t help that these sequences are often repetitive and characterised with screams of anguished pain. While Joe’s attempts to overcome his plight – which saw him crawl his way down the mountain without food or water, and with a broken leg, for three days – make for a gripping read, and the film’s dramatic reconstructions lent them weight, here the audience can feel like they are sharing the ordeal in quite the wrong way.

There are positives, though. The moral dilemma Simon faces when, believing that Joe is dead, he has to make the decision to cut the rope holding them together is explored well, backed up by a particularly strong performance from Hampton, who is the play’s greatest component throughout.

But like Joe and Simon, it feels as if this attempt to scale the summit of Simpson’s story has chosen the most difficult, and the most risky, path. To succeed would produce the most enormous pay-off of all: but the risk is not avoided, and instead Touching the Void brings with it an unwanted sense of painful ordeal.

Continues until 29 February 2020. | Image: Michael Wharley

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An ordeal

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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