, writes Padraic Killeen

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Why are we still gripped by tales of the great explorers?

Theatre director Niall Henry is more interested in the enduring fascination in Shackleton than by his incredible adventures, writes Padraic Killeen

Why are we still gripped by tales of the great explorers?

CELEBRATING their 25th anniversary this year, Sligo’s wonderful Blue Raincoat Theatre aren’t pausing to blow out any birthday candles. Always a busy mob, they’ve lined up a hectic schedule for 2016.

One of the major parts of this busy year is a new show, Shackleton, which opens in the company’s own theatre, the Factory, next week.

The latest in a strand of productions that have seen Blue Raincoat re-imagine the stories of adventurers Donald Crowhurst, Yuri Gagarin, and Amelia Earhart, Shackleton centres on the famous events from the Endurance expedition of 1914-17.

Edward Shackleton and a small band of men from his crew, among them Irishmen Tom Crean and Tim McCarthy, sailed a small lifeboat through relentless icy seas of the Antarctic before then hiking through mountainous rock and glacier in order to secure rescue for their forsaken crew, left stranded behind on Elephant Island.

Directed by Blue Raincoat founder Niall Henry, the show relays the scale of this famous tale of survival against the odds through provocative use of performance, visuals, music, puppetry and miniatures.

Henry says that what appeals to him about the Shackleton saga is not so much the notion of brave explorers as the more elemental, existential nature of these men’s experiences.

“In doing all the research on this, you read all about Amundsen and you read all about Scott, but after a certain point, as sacrilegious as this may sound, the people and what they achieved, the historical side of the thing, becomes less and less interesting,” he says.

“And what becomes more interesting is the question of why are all these stories so engaging.”

Henry suggests they appeal to us because, in great part, they provide images of our own persistence in the face of the strange, terrifying, awe-inspiring world that we all inhabit, as well as for the daily grind that we each of us face in our own lives.

“The metaphors in these kinds of stories — that these people in these wastelands, all they’re really doing is trying to survive — connects with the difficulties that we all have in living our lives, at a broad social level and at an individual level. And, of course, the story has got a lot of action and derring-do and colour in it.

"So it responds to the natural want for a good story, coupled with the fact that there seems to be something about this kind of story that has personal meaning for everybody.”

Having trained in France with Marcel Marceau and Maximillian Decroux, Henry’s roots are in visual, physical theatre, a quality that has very much distinguished the company’s diverse range of work over the years. The new show is notable for featuring no dialogue, something of a daring move.

“We might get hung for it,” says Henry, laughing.

“It won’t be daring when we’re walking up the gallows. But it’s not a question of the show not having speech, but of it having its own strong and integral theatre language within it. It shouldn’t make any difference to how an audience relates to it. Certainly, if it’s done right, audiences shouldn’t find it any more difficult.

"If it works, I would hope that there would be an implicit sense of awe in the piece — not ‘awe’ in terms of how good or bad the show is, but rather that it gets across that sense of being small in a very large and hostile universe.”

Shackleton runs in The Factory, Sligo, Mar 23 – Apr 4

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