Ireland’s Blue Raincoat theatre company mark the 100th anniversary of Ernest Shackleton’s doomed Antarctic expedition with fitting pioneer spirit, jettisoning well-trod adventure tropes in favour of a delicate and bewitching tale of isolation in an untameable wilderness. Performed entirely without words, and mostly through use of beautiful miniatures, puppetry and breathtaking light and sound, this oft-told tale is seen in an emotive new light.
Opening with the agonisingly slow drift of Shackleton’s ship Endurance through the Antarctic ice-caps — illustrated by the nudging of a miniature vessel twinkling with tiny lights across a stark black stage — it takes a while for the audience to settle to the rhythm of the usually-raucous Blue Raincoat’s latest. But the painstaking pace, disorientating darkness and creeping sound conjure the complete solitude of Shackleton’s crew like no dialogue could. With senses sharpened, the audience fight to find any sign of purpose or pattern in the action. Eventually, they’re rewarded: the movements of the shadowy cast of four become synchronised as the miniature boat finds its landing and we read the chilling recruitment notice projected against folded canvas: MEN WANTED FOR HAZARDOUS JOURNEY.
This accomplished yet stubbornly low-key theatricality continues throughout the piece, as the cast re-enact vignettes of the crew’s journey. The silent performers alternate between tightly choreographed manipulation of miniatures and puppets, and acting out scenes in haunting slow motion, as if they themselves were activated by strings. It’s an effective but sometimes needlessly alienating metaphor for the helplessness Shackleton’s explorers faced.
With the performers bundled up in their Antarctic woolies, the technical aspects of the production, quite rightly, come to the fore. The crew’s perilous journey is artfully evoked by Barry McKinney’s icy, unforgiving lighting while Joe Hunt’s ghostly soundtrack builds almost imperceptibly to a crescendo, like the slow creep of dread. At just over an hour without interval, the entire production unfolds like a dream (or a nightmare): a procession of sweeping, striking images.
Some narrative markers, however, would’ve been welcome for those not entirely familiar with Shackleton’s story. Barring the brief textual explanations at the very beginning and end of the performance, the audience is given no clue as to the identities of the crew members, or the details of what happened to them. A few more touch-points would help ground the production, and make the most of the incredible story of humanity and endurance evoked by the performers.
Nevertheless, Shackleton is a heartfelt and lingering production, and a beautiful example of how theatrical imagination can transform a well-known tale into something fresh.
Shackleton was on at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow. Click here for more details.