Joe Simpson’s memoir of his climb up Siula Grande in the Andes may now be the stuff of legend, but David Greig’s stage adaptation brings the humanity of such a feat to the foreground; holding the bated breath of his audience at the cusp of every wail.
In 1985, Richard and his friend Simon decided to ascend the previously untouched, unchartered and icy terrain of Suila Grande. With only minimal supplies and each other for support, things were looking up as they reached the summit. The descent, however, proved somewhat of a different story; with harsh weather forcing them into a turn of events that would see Joe slip: the impact of which forcing his knee into his lower shin and puncturing his upper thigh. As Richard assumes full responsibility for Joe, he is confronted with a life-or-death decision after Joe falls over an icy overhang – dangling above the abyss attached only to Simon. So begins the narrative of Simon’s predicament: does he cut the rope holding his companion, or suffer the same – seemingly inevitable – fate himself? As pragmatism conquers over sentiment, Joe falls to what is likely to be his death. Except another strange incident means a ledge breaks his fall; and so begins his solo journey to try and get home.
Ti Green’s innovation shines through in her design; crafting an icy summit out of a metallic grid scaffold suspended from the rigging, sporadically pasted in shreds of white paper. It provides a curious platform for the actors to navigate; effortlessly tiptoeing across biting topographies high above the stage.
After the rope has been cut, the story becomes largely individualistic – following the harrowing plight of Joe as he hauls his damaged body across unimaginable terrain. It is a truly gripping story, but one that doesn’t instantly lend itself to the stage. In order to provide some variation, David Greig’s adaptation inserts the hallucinogenic presence of Joe’s sister, who adopts the role of mountain expert-cum-motivator. Chris Davey’s lighting design begin to reflect the fragmentation of his psyche; becoming more colourful and erratic as the storyline progresses although never manages to sit consistently with the rest of the production. There is a distinct change of tone before and after the severance of the rope – but such a creative decision serves to alienate the second act from the consistency of the narrative, with the effect being an unfortunate lack of coherence.
Nevertheless, Fiona Hampton is excellent as Joe’s sister, Sarah. She brings a humanity to the role, asking the questions the audience have as to why he would be compelled to try such a feat. Her voice of reason is well-matched by Edward Hayter’s collected yet emotional portrayal of Simon.
Touching the Void is a truly terrifying glimpse into the condition of survival-mode that confronts its audience with a raw and visceral humanity. Though resourceful decisions in its staging occasionally isolate the story from its production, the bare grit of narrative sees for a challenging and suspenseful evening.
Touching the Void runs at the Lyceum Theatre until Saturday 16th February 2019.