Skip to main content

Tom Morris – Touching the Void

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


ends

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Art School Dance Goes On Forever – Snapshots Of Masters Of The Multiverse

Intro – Snapshots – Deaf School

1

In 1980, the same year as the Manchester band, Magazine, released a 7
inch single called A Song From Under The Floorboards – a three verse
and chorus distillation of Dostoyevsky's novel, Notes From Underground
– an art school scandal occurred.

This scandal took place in Liverpool, and was based around a project
called the Furbelows, although it became better known in the Liverpool
Echo and other organs that reported it as the Woolly Nudes.

The Furbelows, or Woolly Nudes, were a group of artists who had come
out of Liverpool College of Art, who, dressed in grotesque woolly
costumes which featured knitted approximations of male and female
genitalia, made assorted public interventions around the city centre as
kind of living sculptures acting out assorted narratives.

The Furbelows project had been funded by what was then Merseyside Arts
Association, and, after the participants were arrested and taken to
court on obscenity charges after what…

Peter Brook – The Prisoner

Peter Brook is no stranger to Scotland, ever since the guru of European and world theatre first brought his nine-hour epic, The Mahabharata, to Glasgow in 1988. That was at the city’s old transport museum, which by 1990 had become Tramway, the still-functioning permanent venue that opened up Glasgow and Scotland as a major channel for international theatre in a way that had previously only been on offer at Edinburgh International Festival.
Brook and his Paris-based Theatre des Bouffes du Nord company’s relationship with Tramway saw him bring his productions of La Tragedie de Carmen, La Tempete, Pellease et Mellisande, The Man Who…, and Oh Les Beaux Jours – the French version of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days – to Glasgow.
Thirty years on from The Mahabharata, Brook comes to EIF with another piece of pan-global theatre as part of a residency by Theatre des Bouffes du Nord, which Brook has led since he decamped to Paris from London in the early 1970s. The current Edinburgh residency has alr…

Martin McCormick – Ma, Pa and the Little Mouths

Family life is everything to Martin McCormick. The actor turned writer is having an increasingly high profile as a playwright, with his biggest play to date, Ma, Pa and the Little Mouths, opening this week at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow in a production in association with the National Theatre of Scotland as part of the Tron’s Mayfesto season. While his own domestic life with his wife, actress Kirsty Stuart, who is currently appearing in Frances Poet’s play, Gut, at the Traverse in Edinburgh, and their two children, sounds a hectic whirl of of juggling schedules, it is nothing like the world he has created for his play.
“I always knew it was going to be about two older people who’d experienced some kind of trauma and grief,” says McCormick, “but whatever it is that they’ve been through, it’s all in the background. They’re suppressing it, and there’s all this claustrophobia caused by all these suppressed emotions they’re going through while being stuck in this room. I guess all that came…