Touching the Void at Bristol Old Vic

JOE Simpson’s account of his epic battle to get back to base camp after breaking a leg during the decent of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes is a real “page turner”.

Many readers have found themselves burning the midnight oil because they could not put the book down. There is also plenty of tension and thrills in the  subsequent film shot against those magnificent mountains, showing you the impossible choice faced by Simpson’s climbing partner Simon Yeats. Should he cut the rope and let Simpson fall into the crevasse over which he was dangling or hold on, probably falling with him as his strength ebbed away.

He cut the rope and after several abortive attempts to reach his friend returned to camp alone.

Bristol Old Vic artistic director Tom Morris theatrically faced almost as difficult a challenge in trying to bring this story of one man’s determination to live when faced with what appeared to be impossible odds, and the visual grandeur of the Peruvian Andes against which background the majority of the story is played out. The tools to create this story on stage were provided by Lyceum artistic director David Greig who wrote the script, designer Ti Green and lighting designer Chris Davey.

Realising that Joe Simpson had found most of the strength required to force himself to crawl and hop over the roughest of terrain back to base camp, arriving only hours before the others left for home, from within his own mind, David Greig introduced the character of his sister Sarah acting as an alter ego urging him on and bullying when necessary as his mental strength threatened to give out.

A moveable silver mass of intertwined metal that could be climbed over and through served as Siula Grande. Although beautifully lit, and accompanied by realistic sound effects it never quite appeared to be truly threatening. The necessary volume of the sound effects on the mountainside meant that Josh Williams and Edward Hayter as Joe and Simon had to play the rather over long sequence on the mountain continually shouting at one another.

Josh Williams also faced another overlong sequence showing the physical and mental pain Joe suffered as he crawled and hopped back to safety.

Fiona Hampton’s Sarah skilfully wove her way through the imaginary and the real, giving just the right weight to both. Patrick McNamee made a neat job of portraying Richard the would-be author left behind to guard base camp, occasionally making good use of composer Jon Nicholls music. He in turn cleverly interwove Joe Simpson’s choice of Desert Island Discs into the action.

On the face of it this is a play about an heroic adventure and man’s determination to overcome physical challenges, and in that respect you could say it was a little disappointing, but under Tom Moriss’s intelligent thoughtful direction it was the motivation of the characters and their mental process that proved to be the most fascinating part of the evening.



Touching the Void continues until 6th October.

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