Filling their stage with props, charts, chairs, noise, and big characters, NIE set off on an adventure to reimagine the fascinating tale of Salomon Andree’s attempt to conquer the north pole in a hydrogen balloon in 1897. He had a very large silk balloon, with a three-tiered basket, and a patented system of ropes and lines. He was a celebrated engineer, and had practiced, but never that far north, nobody had, and it seems he was rather foolhardy in his planning.
The storytelling is bright, incisive, vigorous, thoughtful and engaging, in true NIE style. Three actors play the three explorers, stepping lightly in and out of character to enable them to tell the tale. They are multilingual and knowledgeable, and have thought very deeply about what happened to Andree and crew, what their motivations were, and how best to convey the story of the expedition to us, the audience. Teachers, museum attendants, academics, or perhaps an exaggerated version of themselves, which helps with the storytelling but removes us a little from the real characters, the action and ultimately the tragedy.
We find ourselves separated from the enormity of the landscape, the terrifying abyss into which Andree et al pitched themselves when they let go the chocks that day at Svalbard. Director Alex Byrne and company are particularly interested in the fascinating minutiae of the explorers’ daily life; the homing pigeons, the reality of sharing a cup of coffee on board the balloon, the taking of readings from the top deck. They look closely at the relationships between the three explorers, led by foolhardy and ever-optimistic Andree, but frequently it feels that they have chosen not to explore the larger-scale situation – the vastness of the challenge, the wilderness and the peril in which the explorers find themselves.
Occasional glimpses at the reality are breathtaking: real, grainy photos of the balloon after it has crashed bring us back to earth. Suddenly this isn’t a nice tale of an imaginary balloon crashing, but the cold, hard reality that these underprepared men are doomed. On Nils Strindberg’s birthday, Andree fishes out a bottle of champagne he has kept. He upturns the open bottle towards a tin mug, using an industrial leaf blower to replicate the wind conditions, and causing the entire bottle to blow all over Nils rather than to pour into the cup. It is noisy, violent, irritating, and though it’s funny too, it’s a contrast to the atmosphere in which most of the play has been performed.
Perhaps the decision to take this epic, fateful history and express it as a playful, intimate, and high-spirited piece of theatre was made in reference to Andree’s own apparently blasé approach to the journey. Perhaps the story was just too big, the undertaking so unfathomable, that we are all best off examining it from inside the warm studio, actors included.
North North North is enjoyable and informative as well as being jolly good fun, but it’s just a little too far removed from the reality of its subject to leave a lasting impression.