The Arcola Theatre is a great space carved out of an old paint factory. The building itself is intriguing; the exposed architecture hinting at its past and the recent announcement that the Arts Council has awarded £1 million capital funding for further development is good news.
It’s a perfect time to revive Manfred Karge’s The Conquest of the South Pole – as in 1988 unemployment is rising, discontent is spreading and the recession is biting but given how much society has changed, can it still feel as relevant? Well yes, it can and it does and it’s frankly criminal that it isn’t playing to full houses.
The performance space is small and stark, exposed brick walls and the intimacy that comes from being so close can’t help but draw you in. Minimal set, changes of props underscored by music don’t break the flow and the language is poetic, the physicality of the performances giving it huge energy. Without a weak link this is a true ensemble piece, a wonderfully lyrical piece of theatre.
Seiffert (Andrew Gower) is suicidal. Reading a book on the unendurable ennui of the rich has left him in despair. Again. Aside from the noose around his neck; the grubby bandage on his wrist and the rather less than concerned reactions of his friends suggest this probably isn’t the first time. Or even the second… Even the word work is unendurable.
Slupianek (O-T Fagbenie) is the leader of this disparate group of out of work men, existing on schnapps and pinball in Braukmann’s attic. All swagger and shades, bravado and leather, he seems to have all the answers and it’s only later that the cracks in the brash facade show. He’s been reading too and he has a plan – they’ll recreate Amundsen’s trek to the South Pole. He paints the journey in words for them, the white sheets hanging up to dry become the endless ice, he organises a raid to acquire the equipment and he welds them into a team.
And the team needs huskies. Frankieboy (Chris Ashby) is almost voiceless, he seems to have even less hope of a future than any of them but the casual affection and protectiveness shown to him by the group sits neatly against the bravado and macho posturing. They care and they look after him as I suspect no one else does.
It’s all going swimmingly until Buscher (Mark Field) makes the point – he’s been reading the preface – that trying to emulate a success is a sham, failure is what they do and it’s the failed expedition of Shakleton that they should be mimicking. To feel so little hope that even playing at success feels wrong is telling and the first signs of rebellion and dissent among the group start to show.
Braukmann (Sam Crane) is the only one with a visible future – a wife, a baby on the way, he even has a job but his halting reading of the book of the expedition is heartbreaking. Why is he even doing this? Divided loyalties? Fear? Maybe it’s that ingrained sense of failure that stops him seeing he has so much that the others don’t. Maybe he feels guilty…
His wife, La Braukmann (Emma Cunniffe) has no time for their enterprise. Working to support them, chip fat in her hair, desperate for a child she’s disdainful of their childish exploits and Braukmann is pulled all ways. Her scenes with Slupianek are intense and edgy; it’s never quite clear what is going on. Is the child his? I doubt it. All that swagger is no match for her calm determination.
A birthday party is the catalyst to the group starting to reform – the old friends made good are showing off their holiday snaps from the land of endless ice. In the 1988 production Rudi (Daniel Weyman) and Rosi (Lauren Johns) would have been archetypal yuppies, now it’s the casual prejudice and abuse that mark them out. It’s the abuse that provokes the protective reaction that brings the expedition back together.
There are 179 and almost a half steps to go and even La Braukmann joins them for the final push. Counting out the steps, all around the theatre in formation, finally united, the laughter turns to shared triumph. They made it – all the way back to the tea-table.
In the end it is Slupianek who is left alone. The confident cocky leader, the instigator, he watches the others finding places to be and it seems that the one who did the leading, the one who encouraged them to believe, is the one who needed the expedition the most. He’s the one most bereft when it’s over. Where can he go now?
And at the very end the cry of a baby – a moment of joy and inspiration or another burden?
But what we do know is how important it is to have dreams.