Touching the Void – Lyceum

As Nietzsche said, ”When you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you.”

“Touching the Void” currently at the Lyceum Theatre is the ambitious theatrical version of a true story, a truly remarkable instance of sheer determined willpower to survive.

Based on the book by Joe Simpson, adapted by David Greig and directed by Tom Morris, this event is well known through Simpson’s book and the eponymous film, but the medium of theatre leads to the inner psychology of Joe gaining importance as memories, dreams and imagination become the mainstay of his survival in the cold white hell where he is trapped, inside a glacier with a badly broken leg.

The four actors in this play try to show us in the first act something of the mindset of a dedicated mountaineer, try to find the reasons why there is a need to risk life, comfort and security to embark on struggles that pit Man against Nature.

The powerful second act shows us the sheer scale of the struggle that Joe faces not to die alone on Siula Grande.

Josh Williams is magnificent as Joe. We feel his anguish, his torture as he tries to move, his despair as he fails, his loss of hope, his flickers of defeat. And Fiona Hampton is equally magnificent as Sarah, Joe’s sister, who begins to inhabit his head as exhaustion, starvation, and dehydration start to have their effect. Sarah is there with Joe mentally, urging him on, setting him goals, even hitting him brutally to keep the spark of life and reaction alive within him. There is a palpable tension between them, a battle of wills and life force that Sarah is determined to maintain.

Edward Hayter as Simon is not so strong in character. He has to make the decision to cut the rope that sends Joe hurtling to almost certain death, but somehow this comes across as a matter of expediency rather than a tortuous moral dilemma. Patrick McNamee as Richard, base-camp guardian, provides some gentler moments in the play through live music and song, as well as some welcome humour.

Fifth star of the show is the stunning set by Ti Green, a vast white honeycomb mass that twists and twirls from Siula Grande into the fathomless abyss beneath. Add in the playlist from Joe Simpson’s choice for Desert Island Discs and we have the personal soundtrack to an extraordinary event, the triumph of Man over Disaster.

This production has been at Bristol Old Vic and is at the Lyceum Edinburgh until February 16th.


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