Park Theatre (venue)
12 January 2020 (released)
‘Life is not worth living without its trials and troubles,’ says Shackleton to his innocent stowaway, a philosophy that has driven the explorer and his team to the wilderness of the Antarctic; ‘Only there am I truly alive.’ Based on an extraordinarily bold and disastrous expedition (1914-17), this tale is told by two actors playing the historical figure Shackleton and his fictional ‘stowaway’ Name who like the wise fool, challenges the great man to dig deeper.
Having set out on his Imperial Trans- Antarctic Expedition in his beloved boat ‘Endurance’, Shackleton and his crew became locked in the ice flow for months before eventually having to abandon their sinking ship. Taking refuge on an ice-berg, they watch her slow descent beneath the ice before making it (on life-boats) to the uninhabited ‘Elephant Island’. Shackleton and a small crew then make the unthinkable 800 miles from elephant island to South Georgia on an open sailboat in the storms of the Atlantic with only one sighting of the sun across 14 days navigating. Not bad when you consider that they had none of the equipment we rely on today. When they survive against the odds, the wind takes them in on the south side of South Georgia so in their exhausted state there are mountains to climb on arrival in order to reach the whalers on the other side. They have 48 matches left, no means of communication and have left 22 men behind on elephant island with frost-bite, for four months.
A thrilling story but in a small black box with 2 actors, not easy to dramatise. The decision to focus on a comic dynamic between the very upper class British Shackleton played by Richard Ede and his Welsh Stowaway (Elliott Ross) provides light relief from the dense and descriptive narrative they deliver between scenes. From the initial fury at his appearance on the boat, to the final moment where Shackelton calls him by his name for the first time, there is a touching warmth to the pair. However the darker moments where they face death and despair, lack the weight to convince.
As with all long and painful expeditions, there are of course long periods of waiting and trudging through the ice or snow which are a challenge for director Simone Coxall to keep fresh. Then there’s the huge drama of the epic landscape as a challenge to the low-budget design. The regular moving of pallets, boxes and ropes became a bit of a distraction with unclear purpose and a there was an occasional use of ‘naturalistic’ props in an unnatural way, such as smoking a cigarette without lighting it and type-writer speeds not matching the text being written. Credit goes to the sound however which effectively combined music with ambient and specific sounds effects and the almost abstract visual projections that filled the walls.
Writer Andy Dickinson developed this full-length play from a shorter, sell-out at the Edinburgh festival in 2018. Running at over 2hrs it doesn’t always succeed in keeping the dramatic tension, despite the extreme circumstances they find themselves in and may well have worked better in a short and sharp format. That said, the imagined relationship between Shackleton and his Stowaway is warm, and watchable offering a very human insight into the terrifying events.