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Touching The Void director Tom Morris: “There’s something about stories of impossible resilience, stories about people who have survived things we cannot imagine”

Joe Simpson’s novel Touching The Void has sold over a million copies since its release thirty years ago, and has been translated into twenty languages. This autumn, the tale of two men facing death as they lay perillously stuck on the edge of a mountain is coming to the West End for the first time - in time for the thirtieth anniversary.

Simpson’s novel was reimagined before for the big screen, released in 2003 and starring Joe Simpson, which won the BAFTA for Best British Film. So Bristol Old Vic’s Artistic Director Tom Morris has a weight of expectation on his shoulders now that he’s directing David Greig’s play, based on the book, at London’s Duke of York’s theatre following an initial run in Bristol last year.

“All I knew was that we couldn’t try to recreate the film,” he tells Run-Riot. Morris was struck by the simplicity of the human story about “unimaginable tragedy,” and his greatest challenge was creating a staging which allowed for audiences to feel immersed in “what it feels like to be in that situation of jeopardy facing your own death” - rather than watching from outside.

Morris says for his whole generation, Touching The Void has been “a permanent reference point,” perhaps because the show leans partially on mythology from WWI and WW2 about soldiers returning home after unimaginable strife, but ultimately overcoming things we cannot imagine.

Morris talks to Run-Riot about why the play still resonates for audiences thirty years on, and tells us more about how he’s encouraging new audiences into the Bristol Old Vic.

Adam Bloodworth: Hi Tom. Thirty years on from Touching The Void being released, why does this story still feel so potent?

Tom: Ever since I read the book, this story has been lodged in my mind like a splinter. I can’t get rid of it.  And I’m not alone either. There’s a whole generation of people whose minds were dented by it and for whom it has become a permanent reference point for life. 

It’s like a myth. And it’s got morals too. Lessons you take back to the rest of your life.  And questions you will struggle with until you die. Would I have cut the rope? What would I have done as I lay dying in the crevasse? When death is near, are we all helpless and gripped by an instinct to fight harder and harder until we can fight no more?

I asked Joe Simpson why he thinks his book has endured. He wondered whether it connected with the mythical stories of stories returning from war. There’s something about stories of absolute impossible resilience, stories about people who have survived things which we cannot imagine ourselves surviving that are both magnetic and inspiring. A story about humanity on the very limits of its endurance and the things we might be capable of seems like a fantastic story to introduce people to in a theatre.

Adam: How would you sum it up to someone that's not heard the story before?

Tom: Touching the Void is the real-life story of two young, fearless climbers who encountered an unimaginable tragedy whilst descending the North Ridge of Siula Grande. More importantly, however, it’s about what happened after that tragedy, how Joe Simpson and Simon Yates fought all odds to survive, creating one of the most iconic stories in mountaineering lore.

Adam: What are the directorial challenges that crop up with this adaptation?

Tom: All I knew was that we couldn’t try to recreate the film. We had to do something that could only work in a theatre and that was to appeal to the audience’s imagination. If you remember the film, the photography is absolutely identified with the story. But the film is not actually about the landscape, it’s about the human story within the landscape and what it felt like to be Simon Yates being slowly pulled off that cliff, realising that if he didn’t do something he was going to die and deciding to cut the rope: What must he have been thinking? What on earth could possess Joe Simpson to climb further down into the crevasse, towards death? Those are internal stories, those situations are what’s really important about the book. Set designer Ti Green and I have tried to produce a staging which gives the audience the sensation not of what it feels like to look at the mountain but of what it feels like to be on the mountain, in that situation of jeopardy facing your own death.

Adam: A story like Touching The Void had suited so many different storytelling mediums. Is there any one reason why you'd say this is?

Tom: The best stories to tell – in any art form – are the stories which you can’t forget. This is a story which makes its way into people’s imaginations, into people’s memories. It’s a reference point – that guy who was in the crevasse, that guy who cut the rope. In the book, when Joe Simpson is lying in the bottom of the crevasse, he talks about a voice which he hears. At what point does the voice inside your head which is saying you’re going to die surrender to the voice inside your head which is saying you cannot die? Psychologists say that the thing that makes Joe’s book so compelling is that it understands that when any of us, any mammal, is really faced with a life or death struggle, we find in ourselves resources which we never dreamt were there.

Adam: Was your major concern to present the story in a visually new way? And what tweaks have been made, if any, since the Bristol run last year?

Tom: The most powerful storytelling tool in theatre is the audience’s imagination. The writing, the acting and the scenery are there in order to stimulate the audience’s imagination and what they remember of their own visceral experiences. That’s why we cry in a theatre – because we remember aspects of our own lives, moments we’ve lived and moments we’ve failed to live. Ti Green has created something absolutely extraordinary for people to look at. We don’t want to give the audience the experience of looking at this mountain in the Andes, we want to give the experience of being on it. That’s what the design is aiming to do – to not only be as spectacular to look at as the film, but to make the stomachs of the audience fall out of their seat when they’re watching.  For the London version of the show we’ve also tried to dig even deeper into what it might feel like for Joe in his extraordinary journey down the mountain. The closer we can get to that, the better chance we have that the audience might imagine what they would have done if they were him.

Adam: You've described your theatrical style as playful: how has that fed through into Touching The Void?

Tom: As a child I was inspired by the work of Carl Heap and his company, The Medieval Players. Carl made theatre that appealed to the child in all of us. He said that the den-making instinct never dies in our hearts.  We all want to play and in playing we imagine. This is the sort of playfulness which I aim to thread through every show I make.  I’m also inspired by the great players of modern theatre, Emma Rice and Mike Shepherd of Kneehigh; Simon McBurney of Complicite; Phelim McDermott of Improbable; and Sally Cookson, our associate in Bristol [Bristol Old Vic]. All of these artists understand that within any great piece of theatre is an appeal to the playfulness of their audience. 

Adam: A big part of your role in Bristol has been to engage theatre with new audiences. Where do you think we are with that, and what's the next challenge on your hands?

Tom: In Bristol we talk about “the growing audience.” People who might discover theatre for the first time through our shows and build their own relationship with it for the future.  Some of them will become theatre artists in their own right. Others will become the audience of the future.  And in order to reach them we need to be fearless in our choices and forward looking in our interpretations.  We need to give opportunities to new artists from every walk of life and tell stories which no-one has dreamt might be told in a theatre. We’re about to announce our 2020 programme.  Keep your eyes peeled for a year which combines the greatest talents we can find with the newest approaches to theatre-making we’ve discovered. We’re calling it Year of Artists because we want to celebrate the value of creativity in all of us.  From the biggest star in our programme to the newest child in our Young company. From the bravest experimenter in our Studio to the growing audience whose imagination is at the heart of everything we do.

Adam: There seems to be a raft of new theatres opening at the moment. It's perhaps a broad question, but why do you think that is?

Tom: I think people are hungry for live performance. In an age of digital manipulation and data analysis there is a freedom in the live meeting between theatre-maker and audience which has a power and a value all of its own. Theatres are playgrounds of the imagination and we’re building them because we know that they make us stronger, more engaged, and better able to understand each other in a wild and confusing world.   

Adam: What would you like to tackle next, and why?

Tom: I’d like to do an adaptation of Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce because it is a book in which dreams come true.

Touching The Void
running until Sat 29 Feb 2020
at The Duke of York's Theatre
Info and tickets: touchingthevoidplay.com

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