Touching The Void
Bristol Old Vic
26-29 May, 2021
Welcome to the dawn of a new age. The pent-up passions of Theatre have broken forth onto a 21st century stage fully surrounded by socially-distanced theatregoers, hidden cameras & computers beaming out live streams to the planet. It begins, for me, at the famous Bristol Old Vic, where in 1831 Paganini played his violin, & in 2021, David Grieg’s Touching The Void was returning to its home, having premiered there in 2018. the play itself is based on the 1988 book of the same name by Joe Simpson, which was adapted into a docudrama film in 2003.
I must say I enjoy’d the experience – the quality & clarity of the picture was so sharp. I was led down on a bed, feet up also, very comfy – no scrunch’d up seatsitting & squirming at the coughers; but then again no special sense of excitement at getting dressed up & driving to the theatre. However, there’s nothing wrong with attending your local stages while watching shows across the world & thus Theatreland – & its audience – will be renrichen’d for it.
Touching the Void is a ‘West End Smash’ & it does have a certain populist appeal. The production offers extremely simple storytelling, tho’ done professionally well, & with wonderful effects. It fundamentally tells the story of the unattempted beforehand climb of the 6,344-metre west face of the Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes by two English climbers. The play opens at a pub wake for one of the climbers, Joe Simpson, whose sister Sarah – played by the actorial the star of the show, Fiona Hampton- is searching for answers & truths about her brother, who doesn’t feel dead to her.
Indeed, Joe soon turns up as a living memory as the story of his & co-climber SimonYates’ South American adventure unfolds throughout the rest of the play. As the tale progressess, we are given glimpses of the cool spartan elitism that climbers have crown’d their days & egos with. Having watch’d The Dawn Wall film I now have a basic familiarity with the passion & drive of these feral intrepids, & while that film was exhilarating & often terrifying, attempting to recreate the drama of such a purely natural phenomena as ‘ape-climbs-rock’ is ultimately, for me, dissatisfying as theatrical spectacle. It look’d amazing, for sure, & there were some lovely dialogues & vignettes; but as an old skool kinda guy the Dionysian stage is meant for a different kind of drama than dangling on a rope.
The second half carried in much the same vein as the first, with no sub-plots to speak of apart from the presence of Sarah as a verbal foil for the thoughts of a severely wounded Joe. The fact that we know he must have survived the ordeal, else the book would never have been written which inspired the film & then the play; renders the whole experience of the play as like reading an extremely well-made & particularly pretty wikipedia page. But I was watching this struggle for survival from a very different posture as normal. ‘The New Normal.’ Perhaps If I had been within meters of the stage, nerves bristling to the swells of action & the yells of actors, I may have been more moved to the desperation & the dangers. I will have to watch the play live one day to reason a sounder judgement.
In the overall scheme of streaming things it is very early days of course, even Wagner was thought vulgar at the start of his career, but I think the choosing of which plays to stream is going to be vital. It is rather like transcreating poetry in a foreign language & TV theatre must naturally rarely retain the magic of the original. From now on all the Theatre World can do is Refine! Refine! Refine!
Damian Beeson Bullen