Five friends have nothing to do and nowhere to go. Their lives are a desolation of unemployment, poverty, empty lives and dreams that took the morning-after pill. Then one day the charismatic Slupianek (O-T Fagbenie) proposes a voyage to the Antarctic. In an attic of drying washing the five men re-enact Roald Admunsen’s journey to the South Pole, wrenching a fragment of purpose and dignity from the tundra of their everyday existence. It’s like Winnie the Pooh’s ‘Expotition to the North Pole’, if Pooh had been motivated by an empty larder and suffocating ennui.
Manfred Karge’s play was last seen in London in 1988; now we’ve swapped Thatcher for Cameron but the tune of mass-unemployment and the atmosphere of betrayal and disenchantment remains the same. The Conquest of the South Pole is a strikingly original play that brims over with energy and ideas, and its return could not be more timely.
The brilliance of Karge’s play is not merely that it addresses a generation condemned to the underclass with respect and dignity, but that it’s also free from idealisation or puffery. There is an exhilaration to their adventure, the breathless improvisation of children at play, but also the persistent reflection that once it’s over they’ll return to a job centre scolding, not a heroes’ welcome. The play suggests that just getting by can be as gruelling and torturous as any expedition.
Essentially the story of a playground game played out in adulthood, it’s a reminder that the act of play itself is one possible escape from the misery of a society that has excluded you. Ultimately we work or we play, and there are lots of ways to play – with words, with each other, with robbery or with violence. Having watched rioters seize handfuls of Nintendo 3DS games last summer, Karge’s play is invested with prophecy and empathy.
For all its contemporary resonance, it is also a play of its time and its place. We are reminded of its German origins in details like the ever-present schnapps, but also in the shadow of National Socialism that rears up during a claustrophobic birthday party. The explorers’ confrontation with casual fascist Rudi (Daniel Weyman) is a chilling reminder that dire economic conditions can drive people to far more frightening and absurd forms of escapism than an Antarctic re-enactment.
Delivered in a mixture of verse forms as well as more conventional dialogue, Karge’s writing is relentlessly heightened, and while this feels exhausting in the first few minutes, it soon snags you and draws you along at its rapid pace. The verse is anything but stately, delivered like surging performance poetry with trace elements of Nadsat and hip-hop. Stephen Unwin directed the original UK production at Traverse and the Royal Court, but there’s nothing twice-baked about his approach here: the play feels fresh, relevant and subversive.
Karge’s sparring dialogue is skilfully delivered by the ensemble cast. Fagbenie is the obvious focal point, his Slupianek is simultaneously dangerous, laughable, heroic and tragic. He has the hypnotic determination and clarity of purpose of a true polar explorer, the purpose and drive that wavers a degree away from madness. Sam Cane plays the conflicted Braukmann with a haunted stillness, as he weighs up the meagre pickings of the job he is ‘lucky’ to have with the crazed make-believe of his friends’ pioneering. With superb support from Mark Field as macho Buscher and Emma Cunniffe as Braukman’s beleaguered wife, this is a first class cast in a superb and rarely-performed play.