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A CurtainUp LondonLondon Review

by Lizzie Loveridge

The story eludes us. We never discover ourselves.  
--- Priestley

Antarctica is a new play about a party of six men who were stranded in the Antarctic, cut off from the main party by pack ice, for the dark months of winter in the middle of 1912. It is based on fact but is a work of fiction. The projection of this play into the West End was presumably anticipating a surge of interest in polar exploration with the new film about Ernest Shackleton due to be released soon in the UK. The play is a study of the kind of highly stratified society found in Britain before the First World War as well as that of how men behave, living in near intolerable conditions with strictly limited rations, deprived of light, warmth and food. The men called the place "Inexpressible Island"

Opening in gale conditions, six men, roped together, slither on an icy platform preparing to live under the ice for seven months of darkness. They are divided into three of officer class and three "men" or other ranks. Scenes from the Antarctic are interspersed with those from a don's study in a Cambridge college as Priestley (Stephen Boxer) recalls with Dickason (Eddie Marson) their ordeal, "further from civilisation than any man has ever been." The main interest is in the personalities of the men. Campbell (Mark Bazeley) is the expedition leader, responsible for everyone's welfare, upper class, stiff, stoical, dishing out ridiculous tasks to give the men something to do. His second in command is Dr Levick (Ronan Vibert) affectionately called "Mother" who cares for and understands the psychological pressures that they are all under. Priestley (Stephen Boxer) is more an academic than a Naval officer, distanced from Campbell and Levick, the one who will record the expedition for posterity. Of the three men, Dickason is the batman, Campbell's unquestioning servant, Abbott (Darrell d'Silva) is the working class rebel and Browning (Jason Flemyng) is the weakest link, succumbing to gangrene and depression. These Boys Own heroes sing wonderfully stirring hymns and folk songs to keep up their spirits until they can be rescued.

The performances are all good, especially Mark Bazeley as an officer who declars "We are not animals. We will not live like animals" commanding officer who is concerned about "mental slippage in the group". The trap the play falls into is that the characterisations of the men tend towards stereotypes. Too often on stage, the visual impression is of six of London's homeless in balaclavas and sleeping bags, wrapped up against the cold of the Strand, their white teeth flashing against weather beaten and smutty faces. The claustrophobia of the ice cave is conveyed by a low dark ceiling of swirling grooves. The play seems overly long and tends to drag in places although the lighting effects of the Aurora Australis are pretty and the gales are dramatically staged. We do, howeve, get an inkling of the changes that are to come as Dr Levick discusses the modern age, the intellectual revolution as the world offers no more physical boundaries waiting to be explored until outer space half a century later.

Antarctica might have found a more receptive audience at one of London's many Fringe venues and certainly would have benefited from the services of a good editor. By the way, if we in London are collecting plays set in 1912, this is the third. The other two are My Fair Lady and An Inspector Calls.

Readers might also want to check out CurtainUp's review of Ice Island: TheWait for Shackleton

Written by David Young
Directed by Richard Rose

With: Mark Bazeley, Stephen Boxer, Darrell d'Silva, Jason Flemyng, Eddie Marsan, Ronan Marsan
Design: Rae Smith
Lighting Design: Bruno Poet
Sound: Christopher Shutt
Fights by Terry King
Running time: Two hours thirty five minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7836 8888
Booking to 3rd November 2001 (was originally 29th December)
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on the 10th October 2001 performance at the Savoy Theatre, The Strand, London WC2
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