When David Greig and Tom Morris first sat down to talk about how their respective theatres could potentially collaborate, little did they realise the dramatic mountain they would have to climb in order to make it happen. As the recently appointed artistic director of the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh, Greig already had an ever-expansive track record over twenty years as a playwright.
Morris too had helped reshape the theatrical landscape, first at Battersea Arts Centre, then with the National Theatre of Great Britain, with whom he co-directed the international hit, War Horse, alongside Marianne Elliot. As artistic director of Bristol Old Vic since 2009, Morris was in the midst of overseeing the second phase of a major refurbishment of the 250-year-old theatre. The prospect of Greig and Morris working together across both theatres was enticing, but what to do, and how to navigate their way towards a summit that audiences of both theatres could climb with them? As with all such artistic expeditions, this one required a plan.
The result of this is Greig and Morris’ staging of Touching the Void, Joe Simpson’s best-selling memoir of his near fatal climb in the Peruvian Andes first published in 1988, and adapted in 2003 for Kevin MacDonald’s BAFTA-winning documentary film. Given its subject and the already iconic status of Simpson’s story, both writer and director of the stage version knew they had to make something special.
Judging by the response of Morris’ production of Greig’s adaptation following its premier in Bristol last autumn, this is something which they seem to have already achieved. Edinburgh audiences will be able to see for themselves when it opens at the Lyceum this month before travelling to the Hong Kong Arts Festival. The fact that the production happened at all required a considerable leap of faith from both its primary creatives.
“The story is bigger than both of our theatres combined,” says Morris of his production, in which the Royal and Derngate, Northampton and London-based arts producers Fuel also have a stake. “I didn’t know David very well at the time we first talked about doing something together, and because our theatres are very similar, in that they both have quite an intimate front of stage, but can create big stage pictures behind, it seemed like a good idea for us to collaborate in some way.”
A casual suggestion by Morris prompted a surprising reaction.
“I said to David that one of the things I was thinking about doing was an adaptation of Touching the Void, and he said that if I was doing it, then it would very definitely be him who was writing it.”
Greig’s response came from his own relationship with climbing.
“I sort of knew that David was interested in climbing in some way,” says Morris, “but hadn’t realised just how much of a crazed obsession it was for him.”
This is borne out by at least two of Greig’s previous plays, which has either used mountaineering as a backdrop for an inquiry into identity, as he did in Pyrenees, or else explore the nature of climbing itself in terms of human physical struggle. This was the case with 8000m, produced by Suspect Culture, the company headed by Greig with director Graham Eatough. Other writers too hit the trail, with Alan Wilkins’s play, The Nest, setting out its store in a storm-bound Highland bothy brim-full of Munro-baggers.
In terms of a broader look at explorers beyond pure climbing, going way back, the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh’s production of German playwright Manfred Karge’s modern classic, Conquest of the South Pole, saw a gang of unemployed youths put some kind of meaning into their lives by role-playing Norwegian adventurer Roald Amundsen’s trip to the Earth’s southernmost point.
It was Greig’s first-hand experience of the climbing community that gave him and Morris a way in to putting Touching the Void onstage without having to be literal.
“It’s raw story-telling,” says Morris. “The antagonist here is really the mountain, and I think it’s wholly appropriate for theatre to try and tell a story that’s impossible to tell. Joe Simpson is a really good story-teller, but he’s quite an isolated story-teller, so we needed to come up with a device that allowed us to get to the centre of the story.
“When David goes climbing he hangs out at a place called the Clachan Inn,” says Morris, referring to Scotland’s oldest pub, which is a gateway of sorts for anyone walking the West Highland Way. “The mythology goes that it’s full of climbers telling stories about the extremes of their experiences. We looked at that, and we also looked at one of the relationships Joe Simpson does write about, which is with his sister. Both of those things gave us the language for the piece.
“As anyone who’s seen the film or read the book will know, there are two moments in the story which are crucial, and they’re the moments that make you go, what would I do? There’s a moment where Simpson has a choice, and that’s where it really starts to resonate with the audience. What choice do we make in our own lives so they’re enriched? And what happens if we make the wrong choice? And that’s the job of theatre, to examine that uncertainty and that question, and to look at that tiny moment of danger and what we have to do to protect ourselves.’
How all this is done onstage remains to be seen. It won’t, however, be replicating what’s already been done.
“The film is great,” says Morris, “but we can’t reproduce its photographic language, and the book is great, but we can’t just reproduce that, so what are we going to do? We’re wanting to give the audience the experience of being on a mountain. Jon Nicholls’ musical score is my biggest weapon in that respect. When it works, the audience come out exhausted. It’s almost like they’ve had a physical work-out themselves just from watching the show. We wanted to have elements of a purely visceral experience to try and get an idea of what it must be like for climbers. Once the audience have experienced that, it goes some way to helping them understand just how remarkable what Joe Simpson did on that mountain was.”
Touching the Void, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, January 24-February 16.
The Herald, January 8th 2019