19 May 2012

The Conquest of the South Pole at the Arcola Theatre

The Conquest of the South Pole is an insightful look at life in modern Britain. So it is something of a surprise to learn that it was written over twenty years ago by a German.

The story is simple in concept, clever in design and stunning in execution.

Four out of work young men turn to an account of Admundsen's conquest of the South Pole for inspiration and decide to re-enact the historic expedition in the attic of one of their houses, stealing some Winter clothing along the way to do so.

The story is the easy part but there is a lot more to the play than that, and probably a lot more to it than I caught on a first viewing.

The Arcola stage was as bare as I have ever seen it, which is good because I love minimalist sets and the sunken theatre looks just like an attic anyway.

The play is neatly structured as a series of short scenes delivered staccato like one after the other. The scenes varied in length and pace, as they do in real life.

The dialogue flowed the same way with a mix of short ensemble pieces alongside longer solos. The mood varied too with some short sharp nasty exchanges and some long lyrical ones that almost drifted in to Dr Seuss territory, e.g. Moose in a noose.

The Arcola plays its part too. The intimacy of the theatre means that the cast could easily engage with the audience and at times they talked to us directly to, for example, explain some of the history.

The play is coming to The Rose in Kingston soon (my nearest theatre) but I chose to travel to Dalston to see it simply because I much prefer the layout and atmosphere of the Arcola.

Most of the story swims along with us enjoying the lovable rogues having a bit of fun but we are always aware of the real world outside and sometime this punctures the dream in an uncomfortable way, such as when a visiting couple argue violently over her inability to stop smoking.

(Incidentally, when did it become mandatory for every play to include smoking?)

The journey to the South Pole continues in fits and starts with the explorers having to face the hard challenges of Job Centre interviews, childless wives and shift work.

The dream all but crumbles then the decision is made to re-enact the last leg of the journey and they make a crocodile through the theatre counting out the kilometres in unison before returning in triumph to the stage.

That could be the end but it isn't, because life is not like that. The journey ends, the dream ends and real life reclaims them with work, emigration and uncertain fatherhood.

The Conquest of the South Pole is complex on several levels and that makes for a stimulating, rewarding and testing hour and a half.

One day I'll get around to compiling that list of special shows that I have seen and this will be in it.

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