William Shakespeare, a local writer, one for the kids, a musical and umm, a poetic Brechtian piece of slightly surreal anarchy: not the beginning of an obscure theatre walks-into-a-bar joke but the return to repertory for Liverpool’s Everyman theatre.
Playing in rep through June, Manfred Karge’s The Conquest of the South Pole could be a bit of a gamble (next to the rather more familiar Fiddler on the Roof and Romeo and Juliet) but the Everyman’s artistic director Gemma Bodintez is not afraid of risk. Let’s not forget that she launched her tenure with 17th century Spanish drama (The Mayor of Zalamea in 2004) and then threw herself behind an obscure Edwardian comedy resurrected from the Everyman’s sister theatre The Playhouse’s archives (The Mollusc or Lady of Leisure in 2006). The question then, for the Everyman as well as Slupianek and his team of hapless adventurers, is whether this will be another plucky success.
To cheer up their suicidal pal Seiffert (an endearing Emily Hughes), a gang of unemployed no-hopers are forced by their formidable natural leader Slupianek (Dean Nolan) to engage in a mass let’s-pretend expedition to the South Pole. Having been inspired by the heroic memoir of Roald Amundsen and his Norwegian crew’s first conquering of the Antarctic, the intrepid if haphazard team start their own adventure in Braukmann’s (George Caple) attic, with the laundry standing in for glaciers. The gang are reminiscent of Irvine Welsh’s loveable Trainspotting losers, joshing each other through rivalries and resentment as they try and stay away from an ever present yawning abyss. Hughes in particular moves with impish energy in her constant closeness to the edge.
Director Nick Bagnall avoids any clichéd traipsing around in circles to symbolise a great journey by utilizing the verticals of the versatile Everyman stage. Abseiling in from the circle, clambering over suitcases, strewn chairs and a scrapped washing machine, this is an arctic landscape that exists only in the gang’s heads. Their need to overcome ice storms, peril and penguins as a metaphor for escaping the emasculation and depression of unemployment. This is captured in the narration of one daring escapade (enacted with the adventurers straddled precariously across a ladder): “How does the crevasse look from up there?”; “Oh as you’d expect… no bottom.”
Nolan is an intimidating presence who brings steely grandiosity to the role of Slupianek. Strangely menacing but well-meaning in his effort to bring his friends together, his tendency to bully appears to come from a deep and internalised impulse. His efforts to go-it-alone are as futile as when he saws three legs off a chair to show it can still stand with a single support. A twisted romance with his friend’s wife La Braukmann (Laura Dos Santos) is unsettling as Dos Santos sets not a cat among Slupianek’s pigeons, but a rather more efficient and brutal pistol. All performances are convincing; navigating Karge’s tricksy wordplay is no mean feat in itself, never mind when the performers are having to hold four other plays in their brains as well.
It is slightly frustrating, then, that this expedition feels lacking in the camaraderie that you hope a resident company would fizz with. It is hard to pinpoint what is missing (maybe they are all a bit knackered from the aforementioned five show repertoire) but the crackle of energy that you expect from actors and creatives who have bonded is a bit flat. The Conquest of the South Pole is an excellent production and in that alone the risk has paid off. Whether the Everyman has captured the elusive magic that a resident company can bring to the stage, I am more hesitant to say, but I would jump at the chance to see the rest of the season to assess it further.
The Conquest of the South Pole is on at the Everyman until 26th June 2017. Click here for more details.