Theatre Review: Shackleton

By Tara Fitzpatrick
Blue Raincoat Theatre Company, Tron Theatre, 14 – 17 June

The typical tropes of a shipwreck feature little in Blue Raincoat Theatre Company’s performance of explorer Ernest Shackleton’s doomed 1914 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition which breathes creative new life into the historical voyage, 100 years after its completion.

There are no dynamic thrills or heroics but a delicate, detailed performance which captures the vast isolationism of the Antarctic and the battle of the elements which Shackleton’s crewmen endured.

Beginning with a painstakingly slow sequence, in which the cast manipulate the shape of white sheets to become icebergs, Shackleton’s ship, Endurance, drifts carefully across the stage before reaching an eventual trap among the pack ice which crush the vessel to a halt, the deep black paint of the Tron Theatre stage acting as the unforgiving depths of the Weddell Sea.

Fairy lights twinkle from the docks of the model ship while eerie echoes of the vessel’s collapse indicate the nothingness which surrounds the stranded crew.

While projections of words and archival images are used to help the narrative, the details of the crew’s historical survival are of less concern to Blue Raincoat than the low-key theatricality of the performers.

“MEN WANTED FOR HAZARDOUS JOURNEY” reads the recruitment notice projected across the stage, but words are in short supply from the otherwise silent cast.

The crew of Endurance survived by camping on sea ice before reaching Elephant Island by lifeboat and then making the 800-mile voyage to the inhabited island of South Georgia in 1917. However, this performance offers few references to the story’s specifics.

This does not, however, make it inaccessible to an audience unfamiliar with the tale.

Barry McKinney’s lighting design effectively plays with the day and night hardships of the woollen-clad survivors and the soundtrack from Joe Hunt ranges from the eerie and unnerving whistling of winds and snow to the warm, wholesome sound of strings.

Shackleton possesses enough beauty and allure to captivate without reliance on the expedition details – the inclusion of which would probably only complicate the sleek, hour-long performance.

The scenes evolve between performers Sandra O’Malley, John Carty, Brian Devaney and Barry Cullen as they strive through hazardous conditions and intelligently constructed object manipulation sequences which give the impression of the performance transcending the boundaries of the theatre space.

Shackleton is a mesmerising piece of theatre which manages to explore the human nature of survival through chillingly quiet and agonisingly slow-paced physical storytelling.

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