In 1985, climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates set out to find a new path to climb Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes and achieve a small place in mountaineering history. Having conquered the peak, their expedition fell apart on the journey down - with life-altering consequences.
This true story became a book that has sold over a million copies, an award-winning documentary and a smash hit stage production that has been revived at the Bristol Old Vic to kick off their reopening. It is almost apt that a journey that began on a Peruvian mountainside has travelled around the world and is now being performed on a stage in Bristol and beamed globally into people’s living rooms, helping to shape the way forward for the theatre industry.
Director Tom Morris (whose past credits include War Horse and the Bristol Old Vic’s mightily impressive The Grinning Man) has shaped another compelling piece that envelops audiences and transports them back in time and across thousands of miles in the blink of an eye. A pub setting morphs and shifts to recreate the Peruvian Andes, all thanks to a remarkable set from designer Ti Green (enhanced by Chris Davey’s lighting design and Jon Nicholls’ soundscape). I will confess to being skeptical that the events of Touching the Void could translate to the stage, but this is a gripping thrill ride that, particularly as the interval closes in, creates a palpable tension.
As impressive as the technical craft is in Touching the Void, the production would be nothing if not for the accomplished performers on stage. Fiona Hampton’s Sarah is the audience’s way into the story, helping us understand why people would risk so much in the pursuit of conquering mountains. Hampton is a warm stage presence, eking out laughs whilst never quite letting her grief and determined rage slip away. Patrick McNamee’s Richard takes on an increasingly vital role in the first half, going from comedy foil to the narrator that guides us through Simon and Joe’s treacherous climb. And it is this duo that has the most difficult task in the piece, grappling with the physically arduous scenes as they clamber around the set. Angus Yellowlees (Simon) and Josh Williams (Joe) both give accomplished, impressive turns, with Yellowlees dominating the first half before, as proceedings shift, passing the baton to Williams.
You can see why this is the production that has reopened the Bristol Old Vic. It’s visually stunning, with a compelling script from the always-interesting David Grieg and a wonderful ensemble who give so much in its telling. Even a topic that could feel esoteric becomes an almost universal treatment on humanity’s ability to survive (apt given the time we are in).
It also offers a way forward for a theatre industry that has an opportunity in the delicate moment it finds itself in. With most venues' doors closed for over a year now and venues relying upon a purely virtual means to perform and engage their audience, a hybrid means to watch productions feels like the future. Watching this at home can’t recreate the atmosphere of live theatre but it does offer something more to the format. It means that people who have previously not able to see productions - due to geography, other commitments (particularly those with younger children) or additional access needs - now have a seat in the auditorium, wherever they are. Theatre can become the most open place possible, increasing access and opportunities by adapting to the current climate. Bristol Old Vic’s Touching the Void is an impressive step in the right direction and a show you should definitely make the time for.