Touching the Void review – thrilling, chilling drama reaches dizzy heights

Bristol Old Vic
David Greig finds humour amid the horror in this triumphant stage adaptation of the mountaineering memoir

Climbing high mountains is often used as a metaphor for other ominously difficult projects. So the experience of presiding, during a recession, over a £25m renovation of the Bristol Old Vic may have led artistic director Tom Morris to reopen the playhouse with David Greig’s adaptation of Touching the Void. Joe Simpson’s 1988 mountaineering memoir details how, when his co-climber Simon Yates was forced to cut their link rope, Simpson crawled, hopped and slid miles back to base-camp with a broken leg.

The book’s existence shows that Simpson must survive, and the events have already been visualised in a popular 2003 documentary. But Morris and Greig fracture this familiarity through a morbid framing device that seems daringly to have rewritten the book and by avoiding the easy option of video design for the Andes mountain.

Ti Green’s set features a rotating white zigzag, like a smashed papier-mache Starship Enterprise. Elsewhere, the snowscape is also suggested by the chairs, walls and even the Gents sign of a Scottish pub. Tricks of perspective make the horizontal stage feel dizzily vertical, creating such tension and jeopardy that theatregoers must remember to breathe.

Fiona Hampton in Touching the Void.
Fiona Hampton in Touching the Void, designed by Ti Green. Photograph: Geraint Lewis

Another key creative decision is that an autobiographical story of individual endurance is never a monologue for more than a few moments, with hallucination and memory keeping the stage busy. The one dubious choice is two singing sequences that make this an unusually literal example of a rock musical.

Josh Williams convincingly plays Joe at several levels of consciousness. As his fellow mountaineer, Edward Hayter radiates the moral anguish of having to be willing to kill a friend to live. Fiona Hampton, as Joe’s sister, brings a powerfully corrective female and non-climber’s perspective to a tale of blokes on ropes. Patrick McNamee wittily portrays Richard, a gauche student trekker who, exemplifying Greig’s skill in finding humour amid the horror, dreams of writing a rock-climbing novel called Avoiding the Touch. The obstacle of reaching the heights at the start of a new theatre era has been triumphantly surmounted.


Mark Lawson

The GuardianTramp

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