When does heroism descend into foolhardiness? The question is writ large across Terra Nova, Ted Tally’s play recounting the grim events surrounding Capt Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole in 1911/12.
For the best part of three hours this week’s Hasland Theatre Company production had us sharing the highs, and rather more lows, as Scott and his four-man team braved horrendous conditions as they raced through blizzards and across snow, ice and crevasses in their attempt to beat Norwegian Roald Amundsen (David Brooks) to ‘the bottom of the earth’.
Large backdrop images of Terra Nova, Scott’s ship, glaciers, ice floes and snow, snow and more snow set the scene, with a moaning wind whistling through the theatre’s speakers.
Scott (Steve Cowley) was alone on stage reflecting, towards the end of the expedition, on the extreme hardships they have endured: “I do not think human beings ever come through such a month as we have come through,” he is struggling to write with a pencil he barely has the strength to move.
Cowley’s portrayal of of a man losing his strength, his stiff upper lip, his men and his mind was superb, his words spoken, staccato, between shallow breaths and yet always trying to retain the bearing of an English officer and gentleman.
Tally has Amundsen both as the monkey on Scott’s back, winning the race to be first to the pole, but also the figure challenging him to look deep inside himself, to draw up fresh reserves, to keep going when all seems lost.
David Brooks carried it off with aplomb, reflecting both sides of a character who, arguably, cheated Scott out of the polar prize by deceit, enabling him to make a head start, but was actually leading a team which was better equipped and better prepared.
Scott and his men made it across the 850 miles of frozen wasteland to the pole, but 34 days after Amundsen had raised the Norwegian flag there. Instead of the elation which might yet have helped carry them back to safety, the devastating blow seemed to weaken their resolve and sap their spirits.
Evans was the first to perish, a hand ravaged by gangrene, frostbite and a deep wound he had concealed for fear of being sent back. Matt Green paced his part well, suffering quietly until he was found out, and utterly convincing as, his mind tormented and blood spilling from a head wound, he stripped to the waist in a mad dance descending into peace only in death.
Rob Peach’s Oates was appalled by Evans covering up his injuries and jeopardising not only the expedition but the others’ lives, too. This was a skilful contrast between the anger he showed at another’s weakness, and yet the dignity he displayed when he sensed his own demise, with those immortal words as he left the tent: “I’m just going outside. I may be some time.”
There was a contrast, too, between John Fox’s Bowers, the chirpy Scotsman always ready with a witty comment and Tristan Weston, as Wilson, always determined to do things by the book, and unwilling to distribute opium and morphine among the remaining men until ordered by Scott.
Heather Davies played Scott’s wife Kathleen with great sensitivity, featuring often in his thoughts on his marriage, their son Peter, their garden and what he hoped would be their future together.
The play’s structure of flashbacks and time shifts made the narrative difficult to follow at times but what Val Ryan did achieve in this, her Hasland debut, was a fitting tribute to the courage and fortitude of Scott and his men, no matter how ill-prepared they proved to be, dying just 11 miles from the depot offering them food and safety.
Authentic costumes and props, including the sledge carrying supplies in tea chests, and the tent, completed the picture of an adventure that went so tragically wrong.