Lie motionless in the centre of railway tracks, they say, and a passing train will leave you untouched. In John Burns’s one-man show,
Mallory: Beyond Everest is a fine show — and a worthy tribute to one of the heroes of mountaineering.
He is of course George Mallory, the legendary English mountaineer who disappeared during the 1924 Everest expedition. Though his body was discovered in 1999, whether he reached the summit before his death — 29 years before Tenzing and Hillary completed their ascent — remains a subject of intense dispute. Mallory: Beyond Everest imagines a world in which the climber successfully ascends, and survives, the tallest mountain in the world.
A BBC interview with an aged Mallory forms the play’s scaffolding, and occasions some interesting retrospection. “In the end the mountain had to be climbed,” he says, in the way people have of making out the past to have been inevitable. Fact may be the real substructure of the play, though, in the testimonies that outlived Mallory. Dates and times prefacing descriptions of the War surely refer to fragments from his diary, and the script seems to slip into quotation at other moments. Indeed, the difficulty of differentiating fiction from fact enriches the play with many fertile ambiguities. Mustard gas smells of lilac, Mallory tells us, and acts out gas-blinded men stumbling on the front, their hands on each others’ shoulders. That his wife smells of lilacs on his return is a detail so vivid and particular as to be utterly authentic. But what about hints of homoeroticism in his relationship with Geoffrey Young, who mentors him in climbing, and Sandy Irvine, with whom he makes the fateful Everest attempt? Real or invented, the subtlety of these suggestions is a credit to Burns’ writing and typical of the finely-tuned play.
When asked why he wanted to climb Everest, Mallory famously replied: “Because it’s there.” In the play, Burns makes this irate comment to a journalist in America, a country which England’s ‘Everest fever’ seems to have passed by. Is this based in fact? Certainly the phrase is stripped of its pop-culture crusting and granted renewed reality thereby. The railway episode, too, is viscerally effective, and its purpose — to establish Mallory’s attraction to danger, even before he has ever climbed — is clear. Less successful are excerpts from Moby Dick, delivered above mournful bagpipes. The parallel with Ahab’s struggle is both heavy-handed and inexact: Burns’s Mallory, after all, survives. And doesn’t our knowledge of this from the beginning detract from the lengthy process of his recruitment to the expedition, or render inconsequential his wife’s protests?
The true story, I mean to suggest, may be the more powerful. But perhaps the difficulties of presenting that tale in this format would prove insurmountable. Mallory: Beyond Everest is a fine show — and a worthy tribute to one of the heroes of mountaineering.