Monday, 30 April 2012

Theatre review: The Conquest of the South Pole

Going to the theatre is a hobby I enjoy, as is blogging about it afterwards. But sometimes it can be a chore when you feel like you're run out of ways to say the same thing. Take this past month, for instance: A certain brand of late 20th Century, expressionistic European drama always goes down like a cup of cold sick in this country but in recent weeks producers seem determined that we're going to learn to like it, dammit! Stephen Unwin, who directed the original production, revives Manfred Karge's story of disaffected, unemployed youth The Conquest of the South Pole at the Arcola. All the pre-publicity has focused on the fact that the 1988 production had Alan Cumming in it (and Ewen Bremner, but with the best will in the world they're stretching there as far as name-dropping goes) and he ended up becoming famous so... come and see it this time because maybe one of this lot will become famous. Er, yay?

To be fair, Unwin has assembled an exciting main cast (left to right: O-T Fagbenle, Mark Field, Sam Crane and Andrew Gower) and looking at the website promo page it seems they've now amended it to mention a bit about the play itself, rather than just the fact that someone you've heard of was in it, once, but isn't now. The four who are present play a group of unemployed, bored and in Seiffert's (Gower) case suicidal young German men, who try to deal with their situation by reenacting Amundsen's journey to the South Pole in their attic. At one point Buscher (Field) argues that maybe they should be following in Shackleton's footsteps instead, since his failure better mirrors their own situation.

On the surface of it the silliness of recreating an epic Antarctic journey in an attic, with a washing line representing the frozen wastes, should have been right up my street. But none of it hit the right spot for me, despite the actors giving it a lot of welly. I just didn't care about the characters, or see what point Karge is making by having them escape their reality in this particular way. Ian hated the show so much he had to let out an angry yell afterwards (though only when we were safely away from the rest of the audience - it was press night so the adoring friends and family might have lynched any dissenting voices.) Personally I found it another case of a talented cast deserving better than the play they've found themselves in. At least unlike some shows, The Conquest of the South Pole couches its obscure pretensions in humour, and maybe if that humour had actually worked for me things would have been different. But I found the play increasingly dull, and didn't care enough about any of it to dig through the layers of meaning that the author has presumably hidden in there somewhere.

The Conquest of the South Pole by Manfred Karge in a translation by Tinch Minter and Anthony Vivis is booking until the 26th of May at the Arcola Theatre's Studio 1.

Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes straight through.


  1. The highlight of the performance when we saw it was the moment a small group of children quietly invaded the auditorium from a side door leading directly on to the street. They sat fairly quietly until one of the scene changes when they decided to sing along loudly to the music. It took several of the theatre staff to usher them out discreetly about 10 minutes later.

    As for the play, I agree it's pretty awful. The cast are all clearly talented actors, but they were struggling with this. I had dinner with Ian after we'd both seen it and we ended up compiling a list of the things that (either at the time or in retrospect) we'd 'liked': the line "I'm up to my cranium in crap", which I hope Ian puts at the top of his review; Sam Crane's character being called a "sex cripple" (?); the washing line that represented the arctic; poor Andrew Gower getting force fed new potatoes by not-very-sleight sleight-of-hand; the cardboard pigeons; and of course *that* moment with all the counting - you could pretty much sense the audience thinking "are they going to...?" and then the moment that we all realised that, yes, they were.

    I have to say, I had a great time watching it, though for entirely the wrong reasons - had I been on my own or seeing it in less giggly company, I'd have followed those kids out the door on to the street! ;-)

    1. I think what made it even worse in our case was that it was press night - I can almost understand why certain professional theatre critics seem to hate theatre so much, if every show they see features the cast's friends and family wildly overreacting to every little thing. (The infamous counting scene got a round of applause and cheering last night. I've just read the Evening Standard review and Fiona Mountford called it the show's "finest moment." I might call it that too, but not as a compliment.)

      Actually where we were concerned the actual finest moment was probably in reading the programme and having a good chuckle at the bit where Stephen Unwin lists some of the actors he's directed: Tilda Swinton, Simon Russell Beale, Alan Cumming, Timothy West... Anita Dobson. ONE OF THESE THINGS IS NOT LIKE THE OTHER THINGS!

  2. Your snobbery is astonishing: Anita Dobson is a terrific actress (did you see FROZEN?).

    God, what ignorant bollocks. Keep up the good work.