By Emma Hanson, Masters, English Literature
I set up the television and get ready as I usually do for a film night with my flatmates. But, this time I am tuning in to the reopening night at Bristol Old Vic Theatre for a live performance of Touching the Void.
The live streamed performance offers an exciting new way to access and experience the theatre, bringing live performances to people all around the world ‘live from Row B of Bristol Old Vic to Rosarito in Mexico.’
Touching the Void captures the true story of Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, whose descent of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes becomes a horrific struggle for survival.
Before the opening night, Bristol Old Vic broadcasts a live interview with Joe Simpson and the show’s director, Tom Morris. Joe recounts the horrific accident on which the play is based, describing both the pull and perils of climbing:
‘You’re prepared to push yourself to a point that a lot of people think is ridiculous, and what you got back is intangible, you got a summit. You walk the line between life and death, and because of that you live in the moment.’
The passion conveyed by Joe whetted my appetite even more for the theatrical unfolding of the true life event.
‘Simon!’, the play opens with a piercing cry on a dark stage, lit by an icy blue light. The raw animal panic in his voice immediately gives me goosebumps and I’m completely absorbed.
The light immediately changes, shifting to a warm pub where Sarah Simpson welcomes us to her brother’s wake.
Sarah’s presence in the play adapts the narrative to the audience’s potentially limited knowledge of climbing. She sits with Simon and Richard, Joe’s climbing partner, and one of their traveller friends, while Simon explains the events of the fateful day. It is an effective way to translate Joe’s experience onto the stage; we are thrust into his world but guided by a constant commentary describing what is happening.
And that's the interval! Thanks so much for all your lovely comments so far.— Bristol Old Vic (@BristolOldVic) May 26, 2021
A reminder that this is how much sweat Josh (who plays Joe) produces in the first half. He's worked for that applause! pic.twitter.com/wZgrgtJRal
Harsh lighting, vivid sound effects and the constant focus on safety and survival convey the constant threat of the mountain environment. It makes the climactic tragedy of the play even more horrific: Joe becomes stranded with a broken leg at 19000 feet ‘with no possibility of rescue.’
Unfortunately, the escalating sound effects and multiple narration points with both Sarah and Joe’s perspectives on stage sometimes clouded the critical moment in the play. The sounds almost became overwhelming and hard to decipher.
However, this was an original and creative way to stage a play about one man’s struggle for survival. It was nail-biting and gripping, steeped in the passion and devotion of climbers, and poignant with the love between brother and sister.
Featured Image: Michael Wharley
If you would like to see Touching the Void, it will run 26-29 May as a live broadcast, then a recording will be available from 2-8 June. You can find more information at www.bristololdvic.org.uk.