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John Yap

Review: TOUCHING THE VOID at The Duke Of York’s Theatre

The book was a best seller. The film was a surprising hit. Why does the stage adaptation seem totally redundant and unnecessary?

There is no doubt that reading Joe Simpson’s account of his four days of a “life and death” ordeal, being injured and trapped in the Peruvian Andes all by himself can be very engrossing and thrilling.

Touching the Void at Duke of York's TheatrePatrick McNamee (Richard), Josh Williams (Joe), Fiona Hampton (Sarah), and Angus Yellowlees (Simon) in Touching the Void at the Duke of York's Theatre.

Perhaps Joe’s fears, anxiety, physical degradation, pain, hope, thoughts and determination for survival are better served by the written words in which the reader’s imagination and empathies are stoked.

Likewise, there is no doubt that the stunning and beautiful landscapes of the Peruvian Andes captured on camera and shown on the big screen contributed to the surprising success of the movie.

Both the book and the movie basically featured Joe telling us of his life and death ordeal during those four days in a narrative format. Therefore, it is a surprising and bold gamble by the Bristol Old Vic and David Greig to adapt the book (and the movie) to be a theatrical play.

Joe Simpson and his climbing partner, Simon Yates, attempted to be the first to climb the west face of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. After reaching the summit, on the descent, Joe slipped, fell on to a narrow ledge of the treacherous Siula Grande and passed out. Simon thinking that Joe was killed by the fall because he could not get any response from Joe for hours, decided to cut himself free from the safety rope holding Joe, for his own safety.

Simon returned to base, leaving Joe all alone, injured with a broken leg and trapped on the ledge. Joe’s only option of survival was to lower himself into the void through a hole on the side of the mountain to find a way out.

Joe found the way out and miraculously managed to drag himself, against all odds, for four days through hazardous mountain cliffs and surfaces to reach the base camp and safety.

For the play adaptation, David Greig has introduced two characters, Joe’s sister, Sarah and the assistant, Richard. They add nothing to the developing and unfolding drama of Joe’s ordeal. Sarah is used as a narrator to tell us what is happening to Joe. We do not need such a ploy because we can see what’s going on with Joe on the stage. In fact, her character interferes with the flow of the developing situation. Richard is a redundant foil for Sarah and Simon to bounce their insignificant dialogues off.

All the scenes seem clichéd and contrived. For example, it makes no sense for Sarah to question the death of Joe, sometime later (weeks? months?) in the UK, and then saying that she believes that Joe is still alive. Then she goes into some mountain training in the Peak District with Simon before going back to the Peruvian Andes where Joe went missing to search for Joe. The timing makes no sense because Joe’s ordeal was only over four days.

The confined stage of the theatre is one of the failings of the production. Instead of the magnificence and frightening vastness of the Siula Grande and the open sky, we have a stage cluttered with tables, chairs, a contraption that looks like a space ship (the mountain), and for some inexplicable reason, a jukebox.

There are four stagehands (to move the contraption) and Sarah on the stage with Joe most of the time, thereby destroying the illusion of Joe’s isolation and loneliness, being trapped, all alone, in the nightmare.

Tom Morris’ straight forward direction is not helped by the uninspired acting of the four actors, Joe Williams (Joe), Angus Yellowlees (Simon), Fiona Hampton (Sarah) and Patrick McNamee (Richard).

The sets designed by Ti Green ties us firmly in the confines of the theatre. The cinematic music and soundscapes by Jon Nicholls remind us that we are missing the cinematic images of the magnificent Peruvian Andes.

Perhaps a one-man play with excerpts from Joe Simpson’s book being read might be the better option.

Touching the Void tickets