Two men are climbing up a jagged steel frame that juts towards the ceiling at a sharp angle. It looks dangerous and exhausting. Sweat sheens their faces as one of them suddenly shouts: “I’m going to go!” He begins to fall backwards in slow motion, limbs starfishing as he catches his right leg on the frame. Head thrown back, he screams in wide-eyed horror.
There is a moment of silence in the rehearsal room, then applause from the creative team. “Excellent!” says Tom Morris, the director, before turning to a colleague on sound effects and saying: “Remember, we need to hear splintering bone.”
This is a rehearsal for Touching the Void, Bristol Old Vic’s new adaptation of Joe Simpson’s bestselling memoir detailing his 1985 attempt to make a first ascent of the west face of Siula Grande, a 21,000ft mountain in the Peruvian Andes. Simpson and his climbing partner Simon Yates made it to the top but, on the descent, Simpson fell from an ice cliff. The impact drove his lower leg up through his knee joint. So high on the mountain, so far from help, this was effectively a death sentence, and both men knew it.
Nevertheless, Yates risked his life trying to get Simpson to safety, lowering him by rope down the mountainside – with frostbitten fingers – during a snowstorm. When night fell, disaster struck. Yates lowered Simpson over the edge of another cliff, but the drop was too long and the injured climber dangled helpless in the darkness. Yates now faced a choice: hold on until his friend’s weight pulled him off the mountain and they both fell to their deaths, or cut the rope to save himself. He cut the rope. Incredibly, Simpson survived the fall and somehow dragged himself, hallucinating and half-dead, for four life-sapping days back to base camp – without food, water or medicine.
It is a tale of heroism, suffering and morality – but not an easy story to put on a stage. Both Morris and the playwright David Greig are excited by the idea of adapting “impossible” texts, though, with a successful record in doing so. Morris co-directed the National Theatre production of War Horse, while Greig wrote the acclaimed stage version of Alasdair Gray’s novel Lanark, sometimes called Scotland’s Ulysses.
Greig is obsessed with mountains, having long used mountaineering as a way of thinking about theatre. To describe the creative risk of staging Touching the Void, he evokes one of the world’s most dangerous peaks: “This is Annapurna. This is a very tricky project. There are a lot of potential slips and falls.” But why stage it at all? After all, Touching The Void has already been a book and an acclaimed film. “This is hubristic,” says Greig. “But you have to believe that your version is somehow going to be better.”
Unlike those previous tellings, the play is not a work of strict realism. Greig thinks of it as a “fantasia” – with the untethered quality of a body and mind being pushed to their limits. “We’re not trying to give the audience the feeling of looking at a mountain,” Morris says. “We’re trying to give them the feeling of being on a mountain. There’s an expressionist impulse within what we’re doing.”
He and Greig met Simpson and Yates while preparing the production, and both men have read the script. Simpson feels that he and Yates are too close to the actual events to fully appreciate the story as a story. “It was our reality,” he says. “It was our car crash. For everybody else it has this deeper meaning, this powerful resonance, that we can’t tap into. We were climbers and it was something that simply happened to us.”
Simpson, now 58, works as a motivational speaker and writer. Following the accident, he had five operations on his knee and returned to mountaineering, but climbed his last peak in 2009. Touching the Void has sold over a million copies, he says, and been translated into 27 languages. Why does it endure? Simpson thinks that the idea of the returning hero, the man back from the dead, is a figurethat touches upon something deep within different cultures, religions and myths. Perhaps, too, it is simply that the moral choice – would I have cut the rope? – is delicious to consider from the safety of one’s armchair.
In fact, there was nothing Yates could do but cut the rope. It was either that or die. More interesting is the moment – as dramatised in the rehearsal room – when Simpson first shouted up the cliff that he had broken his leg. In the book, he describes Yates looking down at him, detached and distant, as though he was “a wounded animal which could not be helped”. He believed Yates would make a cold logical choice – the dispassionate decision of a climber – and leave him to perish alone.
“I was horrified,” says Yates who, at 55, still climbs and runs a company offering guided mountaineering holidays. “We were suddenly in a very difficult position. I thought, initially, that that accident in that position was going to be the end of both of us.” So why, given that he had more chance of reaching safety on his own, did he choose to help? “Because it’s the right thing to do.”
Simpson’s survival, one feels, was a sort of gift to Yates, saving him from guilt. “Oh, absolutely,” Simpson says. “I think it would have destroyed him. What Simon did to get me to the point where he cut the rope was superhuman. I can’t begin to describe how physically exhausting doing something like that is. So when I got to base camp, I knew I owed him so much. There’s no fucking way I’d be here if Simon hadn’t done all that.”
He and Simpson were both in their early 20s. Given this and the physical demands of the staging, Morris wanted actors who were young and strong, meaning the audition process was “exhaustive”. Yates is played by Edward Hayter in his first professional role, Simpson by rising talent Josh Williams. I ask Morris about casting Williams, a black actor, as Simpson, who is white.
“For me, there’s absolutely nothing about the experience of Joe Simpson that is racially specific,” he says. “Both David and I feel very strongly that as we’re telling stories in our theatres we need to insist on the bit of our job which is holding a mirror up to society.” Greig adds: “There is a deep responsibility on theatre in Britain to look at the world outside and ask the question, ‘Are we inviting everybody to see themselves on stage?’”
Race is a live issue for Morris – and for Bristol. A report by the Runnymede Trust thinktank found that the city was the most racially unequal in the UK – outside four London boroughs – across a range of indicators including education, employment and health. Morris is determined that his theatre, founded in 1766 and financed in part with profits from slavery, should be an agent of change.
It is now more than three decades since Simpson and Yates teetered on the brink of death in the Andes, yet their story seems only to grow more vivid and dramatic with time. The success of Touching the Void, and the almost mythic quality it has acquired, has somewhat trapped the climbers in reductive roles: the man who fell, and the man who fell short. That feels unfair. Perhaps this stage production is a chance to settle this. Should we see Yates – finally – as a hero?
“Well,” he says with a laugh, “I just did the best I could, didn’t I? In rather difficult circumstances.” Simpson, however, has no time for such understatement. “I owe Simon my life,” he says.
Touching The Void is at the Bristol Old Vic from 8 September-6 October; then Royal &Derngate, Northampton, 9-20 October; and Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, 24 January-16 February