Right, a “comic” retelling of Robert Falcon Scott’s total failure to be first to the South Pole (in 1912) seems extremely unfeasible, but when I’d screwed up my 7:30 booking at the Southbank Center and had exactly 20 minutes to find or give up on a Saturday night theater outing, the 7:45 start time for this show at the Southwark Playhouse seemed just the thing. (And they answered the phone and said that they weren’t sold out, they’d just stopped selling tickets online. Bless the box office staff for helping me!)
But why would I have thought of this show? Well, I know rather more than I want to about the Scott expedition, because my husband is a big polar/mountain adventure history fan. This makes buying Christmas presents for him fairly easy. It also meant I went with him to see The Great White Silence a few months earlier, a silent movie about this very expedition (him: Antarctica me: silent movies us: win!).
The Great White Silence was incredibly spooky and sad; I was obsessed with the scenes of the ponies being loaded up on the boat with the intention of their being slaughtered after they’d done their work. And I knew Scott hadn’t succeeded in some way and “there were deaths” but not until I saw the movie did I realize that he actually DID make the pole, only he wasn’t first: and, I found out, all of the men who actually went on the final stage to the pole died, basically of starvation and exhaustion, while the people at the base camp just sort of carried on for some time waiting for them to return, making movies and sending news dispatches to parts north. (I’m pretty sure this formed the basis of the early 30s H.P. Lovecraft story “Mountains of Madness,” also about a journey to the South Pole, only, for Scott, without the hostile alien intelligences.)
Giant penguins aside, it’s hard to imagine where the funniness was going to be in this performance. But the three characters found much to be silly about, from slapstick and physical comedy (i.e. people pretending to walk down stairs while on the set, throwing fake snow in an actor’s face and making him splutter, spit takes) to the, er, far more depressing irony available when looking at the historical reality of the expedition: Scott’s hunger for media attention; his abandonment of his wife; his near total absence of experience dealing with bitter cold (versus his Norwegian “competition,” Roald Amundsen); the way coverage of this event has tended to ignore Amundsen, much in the way Norway is ignored in general; the ridiculousness of the “we’re British upper class, therefore we shall succeed and what we are doing is sensible” attitude.
In the end, the tragedy comes full to fore, as Scott sits hallucinating in his tent; the production becomes truly lovely at this point. I think, though, just a bit more history would have been good in this case; but at one hour, it was a good return on my £15 and I enjoyed myself greatly.
(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, December 14th, 2013. It continues through January 4th.)