Who is the central character in the new play for Blue Raincoat Theatre Company? Its title suggests Irish polar explore Ernest Shackleton, who returned in 1916 from leading the first attempt at a land expedition across Antarctica.
Seeing Shackleton and his team up close as they cross the icy Weddell Sea would espouse the high emotion of any adventure thriller. Instead, director Niall Henry and company prefer the wide shot of an object at the heart of the story. Endurance is the capacity to withstand. It is also the name of a legendary ship.
In the first production marking their twenty-fifth anniversary, Blue Raincoat’s Decroux-trained ensemble of performers curiously withdraws from the limelight as if in service to two of the company’s long-time collaborators. With the tug of a pulley, the performance begins by putting Jamie Vartan’s sparse set into motion: a scattered assemblage of snow-white cloths, sails and puppets that unfolds to cover impressive ground. The dutiful ensemble of four performers (John Carty, Barry Cullen, Brian Devaney and Sandra O Malley) fade to the background while manipulating miniatures of the barquentine Endurance and other vessels, the stars of the show.
As Vartan’s set covers the breadth of an epic puppet theatre, perspective is applied in fine brushstrokes by dramaturg Jocelyn Clarke. Real artefacts including Shackleton’s enthusing advert for adventurers (“low wages, bitter cold… Honour and recognition in case of success”) and Frank Hurley’s photographic documentation ground the action, but Clarke’s contextualisation goes further afield. A performance without speech requires other languages, and so a choreographed sequence of gestures makes for a skilful import of the Viewpoint technique of New York artists Anne Bogart and Tina Landau. Emphasis on the contour of bodies, their tempo and movement, highlights a production that dashes individualism and dares to make topography its draw.
Henry’s staging is fascinated with the stresses of a landscape. Cloth bundles stand alone like deadly ice-burgs under designer Barry McKinney’s artful half-light, and when unfolded re-atomise as surly sheets of frozen water. On this scale, man doesn’t seem to stand a chance.
But from the creaking grind of a hull against ice, Joe Hunt’s score finds furious drums and crying cellos. Puppets are dropped and performers brought to the forefront, with glacial grace, to bring the adventurer’s determination into striking relief.
Towards its conclusion, the production bravely reruns survival scenes of figures overcoming the folds of the landscape, as if repetition will convey the length of Shackleton’s odyssey. To some, that familiarity might stress the stamina required of slugging through endless territory. Others will deduce that Henry’s staging has run out of obstacles, and ideas.
There’s justice in shining light on Shackleton’s courage while Irish heads are turned towards the centenary of the Easter Rising. But Blue Raincoat’s polar production seeks a bigger picture beyond biography. Human curiosity, pitted against a monstrous landscape, becomes uncanny. Exploration, for this adventurous ensemble, is second nature.
Shackleton is on until 2nd April 2016. Click here for tickets.