You may have heard the story. In one of mountaineering’s most audacious survival tales, Joe Simpson, climbing Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes with his partner Simon Yates, fell into a deep crevasse. Frostbitten, hypothermic, dehydrated, with a broken leg and very alone, Simpson managed to crawl back over three days to base camp.
David Greig adapts Simpson’s memoir, Touching the Void, into a hallucinatory ‘fantasia’, an epic unravelling in a mind deprived of oxygen. Set initially at an imagined wake, Simpson’s sister Sarah meets his climbing partners in a cosy pub in Scotland, unable to fathom why one would risk one’s life climbing. Before long, tables are turned into cliff faces, chairs into crags and Sarah is scaling the walls of the theatre. Later, Sarah becomes Joe’s spirit guide, a voice urging him not to give up.
Staging a story about extreme physical sport is no mean feat itself – how do you go about putting a climbing expedition on stage? In Ti Green’s design and under the guidance of movement director Sasha Milavic Davies, the actors do a lot of actual climbing. A jagged metal structure hangs in the air, a mess of awkward triangular footholds, covered in patchy paper that gets punctured by ice picks, acting in turn like hard rock or powdery snow.
Tom Morris’ production makes ingenious use of the Bristol Old Vic’s deep playing space. With most of the action taking place on the lip of the stage, the space behind the proscenium arch stretches back into uncertain blackness – the void of the crevasse, and of death.
Some of the play’s most effective physical sequences flip the action 90 degrees on to a horizontal axis, gravity pulling the actors upstage. In the expedition’s crucial turning point, Joe is lowered over a cliff edge, suspended in mid-air and sinking helplessly away from the audience in an expertly managed piece of stagecraft.
Through all this, Josh Williams as Simpson makes for an arresting lead. With a self-possessed sense of purpose, he’s nonetheless a likeable, ordinary bloke, not some crazed daredevil with a death wish. He spends most of the second act screaming in pain as he manoeuvres himself across the stage with a broken leg, which he does horrifically convincingly.
Backed by Jon Nicholls’ cinematic score and – in a nice touch – Joe Simpson’s Desert Island Disc tracks, it all amounts to a thrilling piece of entertainment; a paean to living freely and without reserve, which acknowledges both climbing’s idealism and the ugliness of its consequences.
As with all survival stories, it puts the audience in Simpson’s boots. We can’t help but wonder what we’d do in his situation, how far our bodies and instincts would take us. Probably further than we’d think.