Musical company

Touching the Void (Melbourne Theater Company)

Melbourne Theater Company’s first play of the 2022 season comes with one big, unavoidable spoiler alert. It’s based on Touching the Void, Joe Simpson’s best-selling memoir about his near-fatal Peruvian mountain climb, so it’s no secret that it survives. The docudrama of the same name adds to the likelihood that audiences will know its story. Film is a format suited to the intense physics of mountaineering, but adapting Simpson’s experience to the stage is a heck of a leap forward. Playwright David Greig has done this by boldly embracing this physicality, as well as addressing the existential side of Simpson’s misadventure in a way that challenges expectations audiences may have for the outcome.

Touching the Void, Melbourne theater company. Photo © Jeff Busby

Greig’s Touching the Void features Joe (Simpson) and his climbing partner Simon, their inexperienced base camp dogbody Richard, and Joe’s sister Sarah, who knows even less about mountaineering. From the wake of her brother, she seeks to understand what drove him to climb and what went wrong in Peru, while becoming the imaginary figure that inspires her to survive. Explaining this apparent riddle would be a real spoiler, so enough said.

After a successful run in the UK, Touching the Void makes its Australian debut with this MTC production directed by Petra Kalive. It is dominated by a metal frame similar to a large-scale 3D contour map. Depicting the 6,344-metre Siula Grande mountain, set designer Andrew Bailey’s creation is almost a character in itself. The actors interact with this relentless beast almost constantly throughout the play’s 110 minutes, climbing and climbing on it, and even sliding and swinging on it. They bring a sort of seldom-seen physics to a room, which gives it instant excitement and tension.

Joe Klocek (Joe) and Kevin Hofbauer (Simon) are particularly busy on Bailey’s mountain. Their physical stamina and self-assurance go a long way in convincing us that they are thousands of feet up, in grave danger among snow, ice, and nothingness. Sadly, it’s hard to engage in that conceit when their dialogue gets heavy with exposition on the way up and an even harder way down. At other times, the script clearly and naturally explains important aspects of their journey and basic technical terms to an audience unfamiliar with bivouacking and belaying. It also cleverly plays with our sense of what is real and imagined, as the characters glide dreamlike through time and space.

However, Touching the VoidThe exploration of human connection and will, of life and death itself, is stuck at base camp, leaving the actors there as well. Joe de Klocek is an enthusiastic but thoughtful adventurer while Simon de Hofbauer is a stable and practical adventurer. There’s a clumsy naïveté to budding adventurer-author Richard, played by Karl Richmond, while Lucy Durack’s Sarah morphs from taciturn weeper to tireless motivation. They feel like characters, not people.

There’s a lot to love Touching the Void, from the innovative ways it approaches the mountain at its heart, to the atmosphere created by lighting designer Katie Sfetkidis and composer/sound designer Darius Kedros. But ultimately, we are left to reach rather than touch the void and the philosophical questions it represents.

Melbourne Theater Company Touching the Void continues at the Southbank Theatre, The Sumner until February 19.