A chip on his shoulder? Shackleton’s Carpenter at Jermyn Street Theatre

Saturday 3rd August 2019, matinee

The story of Shackleton’s heroic failure on the ice floes of the Antarctic seems to have an endless fascination.  What could capture the imagination better than an expedition which set out to be the first to cross the antarctic by land, a ship which got trapped and then crushed in the ice, and a bid for survival which involved an even more extraordinary journey, with no loss of life.  And all photographed with exquisite beauty by Frank Hurley.

Harry McNish, the ship’s carpenter, was widely credited with saving lives through his ingenuity in constantly scavenging and re-purposing the expedition’s meagre resources to ‘recondition’ a lifeboat which miraculously managed an 800 mile journey from Elephant Island to South Georgia.

At the heart of this one man drama is the burning injustice that McNish was denied the polar medal, an honour given to all but four of the crew, despite Shackleton grudgingly admitting that McNish had probably saved all their lives.  He couldn’t stomach McNish’s ‘insubordination’ even though he had admitted that he right.  What follows is an exploration of how class divides still persist, even in the most desperate situations – as a working class man, albeit a master craftsman, McNish could never be seen to be superior to the aristocratic captain in any way.

Gail Louw’s play brilliantly captures the ramblings of a drunken man at the end of his life when he is living destitute on a wharf in new Zealand.  It is a very personal account where trivialities take on an exaggerated importance – having his cat shot, being referred to as the ‘old carpenter’ despite being a few months younger than Shackleton, and Shackleton’s  steadfast refusal to admit to him that he was right.  Ironically the polar medal seems to rank quite low in his list of priorities.   He gets his revenge though in an imagined dialogue where he ponders whether Shackleton’s wife asked that he be buried in South Georgia where he had died on his last expedition, so that his mistress could not visit his grave.

Malcolm Rennie delivers a visceral narrative, full of emotion – the romanticism of adventure swept away by the raw pain of knife-edge survival.  He engages the audience in an apparently unselfconscious way, mostly lost in his own thoughts, not trying to persuade or charm us, just letting us briefly into his world.

This production certainly packs a lot into its 70 minute running time, but we did feel a little short-changed with tickets priced at £30.  We can’t help feeling that if the play can’t be lengthened, perhaps a double-bill could have been on offer – there must be plenty of complementary stories.

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