Sunday 17 December 2017

Theatre review: Shackleton - lack of verbal script creates hole at the centre

Theatre Review, Shackleton, Project Arts Centre, Dublin

Shackleton, Project Arts Centre, Dublin. Credit: Peter Martin
Shackleton, Project Arts Centre, Dublin. Credit: Peter Martin

Katy Hayes

This almost non-verbal 70 minute show is a depiction of the 1914 Endurance mission, where Ernest Shackleton and his crew attempted to cross Antarctica from sea to sea, via the South Pole, and gloriously failed.

Sligo’s Blue Raincoat Theatre Company have created a visually stunning show. Jamie Vartan’s design conjures icebergs and pack ice from sheets of white cloth. Barry McKinney’s lighting is superb. Joe Hunt’s sound and video creations are even better still. Puppet boats skim the water, buffeted by storms. Icy mountains are made out of sheets. Effective play with shadow imagery depicts Shackleton with his pipe and his gramophone. The vision rivals the skill behind big shows like War Horse or The Lion King; the scale is smaller, but the inventiveness is equally audacious.

But all this visual wealth comes at a cost. The lack of a verbal script creates a hole at the centre, where emotional engagement is sacrificed for visual effect. All the fantastic detail of Shackleton’s ill-fated adventure is lost; there is no sense of excitement or jeopardy. The actors move their bodies well, but don’t get an opportunity to flex their acting muscles. There are no real characters. Performance simply serves design.

Director Niall Henry has a major visual talent, but the lack of recourse to more verbal aids feels misguided. The show is bookended by projected quotes from Shackleton. It opens with his newspaper ad looking for volunteers: “Men wanted … small wages … safe return doubtful … honour and recognition in case of success.”

A different newspaper ad comes to mind: “Scriptwriter wanted.”

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