In the background a lecture in the old Home Service style, decorous and passionless, finishes relating the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s expedition: of the ship Endurance crushed in the ice, 28 men’s open-boat voyage to Elephant Island, and the leader’s extraordinary onward trip in the James Caird to get help for the stranded men. It acknowledges the brilliance of the ship’s carpenter, Harry McNish, who strengthened the Caird with pieces of the other boats, and observes that nobody knows whether he is still alive.
He is. On a wharf in New Zealand a dishevelled old man wakes from sleeping in an abandoned lifeboat, raises a bottle of whisky and confronts his ghosts. Derelict, delusional, defiant but near to death, he addresses Shackleton, himself already a ghost, and other shipmates. Bright-eyed under beetling brows, an angry moulting eagle, Malcolm Rennie delivers an intense, unsparing eighty minute evocation of memory and mockery, survival in grim Antarctic beauty, pride , trauma and not least, fury.
He has never forgiven Shackleton for shooting his cat, Mrs Chippy (“I’d have looked after him on the booaaats!”) as well as the 69 dogs and pups . (Of course he would know, as do all students of the heroic age of Polar exploration, that this had to be done: the animals could not have made the boat journey, and were best given a merciful death. The irony is that it had been the company of the dogs which helped, alongside Shackleton’s firm leadership, to prevent mutiny and madness in that dark cold Antarctic winter. But to McNish, a hard man with a soft heart, it seems now to be only part of Shackleton’s arrogance. And the cat could, in his view, have come with them: a character, Mrs Chippy, who teased the sled dogs by walking on their kennels…).
Mc Nish has other beefs with his leader, whose upper-class voice he sometimes briefly, satirically channels. He was denied the Polar medal for his defiance, and also – it seems to him – for having been right about a manoeuvre of the boats on the floes. A brilliant workman, he had other ideas for escape when the great ship cracked and crumpled before their eyes. Nor did he approve of Shackleton’s failure to hold religious services. But he was under command, and of another class. His memory ranges back to his own early life: one of eleven, a bedful of brothers in a Glasgow slum, twice widowed in his twenties in that age of childbed mortality. Whether near tears, laughing, arguing or visionary, the defiant old man grows before us and evokes the bitter beauty of ice and the grinding darkness of the long months of night. “Is that what death is like,Sir Ernest?”.
Gail Louw’s play, and Rennie’s tremendous, unforgettable performance, were directed by Tony Milner of the New Vic before his death, This production – which tours single nights through autumn and winter, is in his memory. If you catch it, you won’t forget it.
Box office 0207 387 2875 www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk to August 17
tour dates uk & Ireland : shackletons-carpenter.weebly.com