It shouldn’t work. Attempting to make effective theatre out of scaling a mountain, facing disaster thousands of feet up in the freezing cold and enduring a drawn-out facedown with death is surely a preposterous idea. Yet that is exactly what playwright David Grieg and director Tom Morris and his ideally meshed creative team have done. And against all the odds, “Touching the Void” isn’t merely effective, it’s enthralling.
We’re in a pub in the late eighties at the wake for climber Joe Simpson, but his stroppy sister Sarah (Fiona Hampton) isn’t so much upset as furious. “At least he died doing something he loved,” she announces, before blinking and adding, “but that’s bullshit.”
As opening gambits go, it’s arresting, not least because as the vast majority of audiences will know, the bit about him dying is flagrantly untrue. Grieg’s play, after all, is based on Simpson’s celebrated book — and the highly regarded 2003 docudrama of the same name — about surviving his climb of the Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes.
Sarah wants to know what happened. How and where did he die or, rather, is he really dead? And there, conveniently, are the two people who think they know the answers: Joe’s fellow climber Simon (Angus Yellowlees) and the hapless, happy-go-lucky hippyish Richard (Patrick McNamee), who the other two met en route and who looked after base camp for them while the climbers set off on their perilous journey.
Physically and aurally stylized segues between her questions and the men’s answers indicate that we are not in a naturalistic world — a suggestion made clear at the top of the second act. Gradually, we sense that these expository scenes are Joe’s hallucination as he lies alone in cold, sharp agony with a broken leg at the bottom of an ice cave.
The eschewing of naturalism is the key to the production’s grip and success. To explain the lure of climbing to fiercely skeptical Sarah, Simon and Richard commandeer the pub’s chairs, tables and ropes for what becomes, in every sense of the phrase, a truly remarkable suspension of disbelief, thanks to the brazen inventiveness of Morris’ production.
As Sarah strains and hauls herself up the tables and up to the top of the proscenium arch — which is far less prosaic than it sounds — you sense the audience becoming complicit in the physical storytelling and willing themselves to join Sarah in imagining the world being conjured up before us. Although tonally very different, it is stylistically similar to the act of imagination induced by “War Horse,” the show that Tom Morris co-directed with Marianne Elliot.
From there, the ever-increasing dynamism of the staging builds through the first act, as the climbers clamber, hang, slip and slide across Ti Green’s abstracted yet thrillingly suggestive set, a hung, cloth-patched metal sculpture slowly twisting and turning in Chris Davey’s hard, piercing lighting. Together with Jon Nicholl’s music and atmospheric aural landscape – not to mention the dexterity and dedication of the actors working with movement director Sasha Milavic Davies – the sense of jeopardy is overwhelming, with Joe and Simon at breaking point, 19,000 feet in the air. It sends the audience away at intermission both exhilarated and agog over what will happen next.
The second half springs fewer visual surprises but makes up for it by pushing harder on the metaphysics as Grieg’s script cleaves to and teases out Simpson’s thought processes as he struggles in absolute extremis. Long before the end, it is evident that the play is far less about climbing than it is a questioning of and testament to human endurance and survival.