Touching the Void review – mountain climbing adaptation fails to reach book’s thrilling heights

William Blake said “Great things are done when Men and Mountains meet”, and the capitalisation seems telling; while there are female mountaineers, there is something hyper-masculine about the idea of conquering mountains. In his classic memoir, Touching the Void, Joe Simpson talks candidly of his addiction to the thrill of mountain climbing, and the strange pull towards danger that comes from “too much testosterone and too little imagination”.

The book became famous when it was published in 1988, and then the docudrama that came in 2003 made Simpson and his fellow climber Simon Yates even more famous. 확실히, it was an extraordinary tale of grit and survival; two climbers in impossible danger, a shattered leg, a drop, a body hanging from a rope. That rope became a kind of talismanic representation of human connection, and the decision to cut it – ostensibly sending a fellow climber to his death – chillingly underlined its limits.

A stage adaptation of a story that takes place entirely on the top of a mountain in the Andes begs the question of how, but more important is the question of why. What attracted playwright David Greig to this story, and what did he think a stage version could tell us that hadn’t been told before? It would be informative to ask him, because the play doesn’t provide satisfactory answers.

The central alteration Greig makes is the introduction of Joe’s sister Sarah (Lucy Durack), who opens the play with a speech she gives at the pub hosting Joe’s wake. Attending are Joe’s climbing partner Simon (Kevin Hofbauer) and the man who looked after their tents back at base camp, Richard (Karl Richmond). As the three drink and mourn, as Sarah punctures the men’s grandiloquence and reaches for details of her brother’s fate, 조 (Joe Klocek) himself appears like an apparition. The story of the climb and the fall slowly reveals itself, as an adventure story in its own right and as a means of exorcising ghosts.

But Greig has a trick up his sleeve. What becomes clear is that Sarah isn’t conjuring Joe; rather Joe, trapped and alone on the mountain, is conjuring Sarah. The wake is a mere hallucination, Joe’s imagined end to a life still hanging literally in the balance, and his sister becomes a phantom guide to get him through. This may have struck the playwright as an ingenious device, a way of taking the book’s relentless interiority and making it external and therefore the stuff of stage drama. But the effect is strangely inert, and intellectually thin. In Simpson’s own version, a voice from within keeps him alive and moving; here it’s his good old sister Sarah, cheering him along like an overzealous life coach.

If the playwright thought the introduction of Sarah would help balance the gender disparity at the heart of the story, he needed to give her some inner life. As it stands, and despite Durack’s earthy charm and welcome cynicism, Sarah is merely an adjunct to the men and, as the play progresses, dangerously close to the manic pixie girl trope. 더 나쁜, because she accompanies Joe throughout his ordeal, that existential terror of being alone – the void at the centre of the story – fails to register.

Director Petra Kalive seems more at home with the play’s lighter moments, its casual humour and breezy banter, than she is with the tilt into awe; she struggles to wrestle the tonal shifts into something cogent and affecting. Andrew Bailey’s monumental set, with its mountain made of strips of metal, is clever and suggestive, and Katie Sfetkidis’s lighting is brilliantly effective. The mountain seems to shift from snow-capped peaks to rocky moraines simply with a change in the light.

The cast are admirably physical and committed, even if they never seem particularly stretched (mountain climbing aside). Klocek is a winning Joe, avuncular even when most tortured, and Hofbauer is suitably pained as the climber who carries the guilt. Best of all is Richmond, who brings enormous amounts of charm and depth to a character who could easily become irritating.

Why people feel compelled to climb impossible summits for fun is anyone’s guess, but at least Simpson’s own telling grappled meaningfully with the grand questions of life and death. Greig’s version feels depressingly lightweight, glib and avoidant. Perhaps adaptation isn’t for him; he wrote the appalling stage adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris for Malthouse 극장 a few years ago. Blake may have been right about great things happening when men and mountain meet, but not in this iteration.

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