“I’d rather touch greasy chips than greasy chaps”
When it comes to European drama, I’ve tried my best with the slim pickings available to us here in London and I have quite often been pleasantly surprised: I Am The Wind and Big and Small being the examples that pop into the mind, as theatre that just operates on a completely different level to what I’m used to and given a treatment that somehow connected with me. But there have been shows that failed to break through the enigma – Black Battles with Dogs being the most recent example – and I’m sad to say that Manfred Karge’s The Conquest of the South Pole fell firmly into this category, leaving me completely nonplussed as to what it is that it is trying to say or do.
Stephen Unwin directed this show back in 1988 and for this, its first revival in London since then, he has returned to the piece for which he obviously has great affection to present in the main studio at the Arcola. But you know you’re in trouble when the most fascinating thing happening is three Hackney kids gate-crashing the theatre via an unlocked side-door and the subsequent silent efforts to get them to leave. Ultimately, I found this much more engrossing than the story of this group of unemployed young men who decide escape the grimness of their lives by re-enacting Amundsen’s voyage to the South Pole in a cramped attic using a washing line and some sheets to evoke the Antarctic tundra.
So much of it I just found painful to watch: whether it was ‘falling to the knees’ acting, ‘jumping on the table’ acting or ‘pretending to be a dog’ acting; long recitals from books, bizarre singing interludes or the random force-feeding of meringues and new potatoes (separately) disrupting whatever flow there was; the cardboard pigeons or perhaps the single most pretentious, excruciatingly drawn out sequence I think I’ve ever seen in a theatre (at which my stifled giggles erupted into proper laughter out loud I’m sorry to say). I’m not particularly proud of this but the play had just stretched my tolerance levels way too far at this point.
Despite the efforts of a talented cast who work in varying degrees of effectiveness – O-T Fagbenle copes manfully as the driving force behind the group’s escapist fantasies and Emma Cunniffe managed to find some real empathy beneath the banality of the much of her script – I never once felt any real connection with these characters or their plight. And as Unwin’s direction flits too often between the expressionistic and the literal, there’s no chance of us being swept away into the all-encompassing different mind-set that marks successful interpretations of this kind of drama. Instead we’re jerked in and out, up and down and all around the theatre in a merry dance (or slow conga-walk…) to the end of the earth and the end of my patience.