Touching the Void (MTC) – theatre review

A near death experience is revealed as an adventure story in MTC’s comedic drama Touching the Void, which kicks off its 2022 season. The vehicle is the wake in a Scottish pub for climber Joe (Joe Klocek). It is being orchestrated by his potty-mouthed sister Sarah (Lucy Durack). Attending are the two members of Joe’s party on the fateful expedition that claimed his life. Simon (Kevin Haufbauer) was his climbing partner, while Richard (Karl Richmond) remained at base camp. Neither of them knew Joe well.

Photos by Jeff Busby

Suffice to say, the tragedy occurred while on a climb of Siula Grandes in the Peruvian Andes. In the first instance, Joe broke his leg … and it was all downhill from there, with the weather having a frightful impact. Joe ended up falling into a crevasse. An acerbic Sarah wants answers. She would like to know what the attraction of climbing is and how the accident happened. So, Simon sets about showing her, step by step. In reality though there is only one question that demands an answer and that is: Is Joe really dead?

Based on a 1988 book of the same name by Joe Simpson, the true story behind Touching the Void has been adapted for the stage by David Greig. It was made into a docudrama in 2003 and had its world premiere as a show in the UK in 2018. Although I generally warm to survival stories, I can’t say I particularly took to Touching the Void. I simply didn’t think there was enough substance to this interpretation. I didn’t appreciate the humour all that much, which in large part I regarded as puerile.

As for Joe’s fight for survival, it was an ordeal and laboured (no pun intended). I found Touching the Void tedious and did a lot of clock watching, even though the whole piece was only 100 minutes without interval. Another thing that irked me was too many detailed references to climbing equipment, which I felt was unnecessary. While not finding fault with the cast’s acting ability, I query the lightweight treatment of the subject matter.

And while I don’t doubt the incident that inspired the play was harrowing, having seen Touching the Void I am far from convinced that it lends itself to a stage adaptation. My mind turned to a movie about another tragic incident in the Andes – Alive, that came out in 1993. For me that worked in ways Touching the Void didn’t, notwithstanding that it was in a different medium.

The best thing about the play was the staging. Set designer Andrew Bailey has created an elaborate metal structure to replicate a mountain. It is atop that that much of the action unfolds. I am afraid that Touching the Void, directed by Petra Kalive, didn’t hold my attention. It is playing at Southbank Theatre, The Sumner, until 19th February, 2022.

Alex First

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