Gail Louw’s play takes the form of a one-sided conversation with a ghost. Harry McNish was the carpenter on board the Endurance during Sir Ernest Shackleton’s failed Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition and played a crucial role in ensuring that the lifeboats stood a chance against the open sea. However, he was one of the few members not to be awarded the Polar Medal, a personal snub for his ‘insubordinate’ manner.
This sludgy play is strongest in exposing the one-sided nature of history, as the wealthy explorers seek personal glory while giving short shrift to the hired help without whom such expeditions would not have been possible.
One of the stranger things about Shackleton’s Carpenter is that though Tony Milner, the director of its original production, died in 2015, no other director has been appointed to oversee the current staging.
As the haunted McNish, exiled to New Zealand and living in a washed-up lifeboat that’s both refuge and potential coffin, his hands paralysed by arthritis, Malcolm Rennie gives an admirable performance filled with manic energy that is particularly touching in his conveyance of childlike hurt.
Although the story involves themes of power and class and the highest survival stakes, it feels like it’s aimed at Antarctic expedition enthusiasts. For those less familiar, it’s more of a soporific voyage in the dark than a journey of discovery. It’s also not for cat lovers, who will struggle to see Shackleton as a hero after his treatment of McNish’s beloved tabby Mrs Chippy.