Though written in the mid-1980s, Manfred Karge’s play paints an all too familiar picture. Worn down by their jobless, aimless existence, a group of young men seek a means of escape from the bleak reality of their lives. The swaggering Slupianek - played with charisma and a brash aggressive energy by O-T Fagbenle - suggests a kind of game: together they will act out Amundsen’s conquest of the South Pole. Amundsen is favoured over Shackleton because they face enough failure every day.
A scene from The Conquest Of The South Pole at the Arcola Theatre, London Photo: Tristram Kenton
Stephen Unwin, who previously directed the play for its UK premiere at the Traverse, invests the material with a raw, urgent quality. It feels both of its time and of ours. The language has a poetic energy, a rhythmic drive, and the performers ping off one other, easily filling the bare Arcola stage as they alternate between moments of laddish camaraderie and frustration, their bravado undercut by flashes of warmth and tenderness. Sam Crane has an endearing nervy quality as the beaten-down Braukmann and Emma Cunniffe strikes the right note of resignation as his wife, but really this is an ensemble piece and it’s the group scenes that really stand out. The men’s game becomes more than a game, it gives their lives shape, a sense of destination - but while they get to have their brief moment of imaginative triumph, the play leaves its audience with the understanding that their victory is only fleeting.