Recent years have witnessed mounting criticism of mumbling actors, mostly on television but also in the the theatre. Jan Leeming, the former BBC newsreader with commendable delivery, once admitted that for certain programmes she now turns on the subtitles. No such issues arise in The Final Journey of Edward Wilson. On the contrary, Sam Rohwer and John Bassett with their advanced levels of articulation and enunciation are a phonetic delight. Developing their diction, Rohwer uses his natural voice in the portrayal of Wilson, whose native Cheltenham is not that far from Rohwer’ home and the base of Spaniel in the Works Theatre Company in Stroud. Bassett, who also wrote the play, takes on all the other parts with clearly defined accents appropriate to characters ranging from game-keepers in the highlands of Scotland to the rich and famous in the upper echelons of English society and many other types in between.
An exceptional theatrical tribute to a legend of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.
In discoursing Wilson’s life we encounter numerous individuals who influenced and determined its course. In the space of an hour these two men sensitively and accurately provide a neatly packaged biography of Wilson that finds its culmination in his death in Antarctica, along with Captain Scott and ‘Birdie’ Bowers, just eleven miles from the base camp whose provisions would have saved their lives. The ending is well-known, but this lucidly written work uncovers details of Wilson’s life and exposes his inner depths.
What at first appeared to be an overly soft, understated performance from Rohwer was actually the sign that he had absorbed the essence of Wilson’s character. Here was a man who had devoted years to overcoming a somewhat acerbic and emotional temperament that he found incompatible with the deeply held Christian faith he had developed from the days of his Quaker upbringing. He performs with an an almost apologetic hesitancy and precision that is the manifestation of Wilson’s devout humility learned from St Francis of Assisi. Only when he has to confront the agony of knowing his death will leave his beloved wife Oriana a widow is Rohwer able to give vent to Wilson’s inner agony and emotional torment. The scenes are in stark contrast to his ‘Uncle Bill’ persona to whom Captain and crew turned for sound judgment and wise counsel.
Meanwhile, Bassett changes various details of costume, picks up and then abandons a tobacco pipe and takes on vocal sounds from around the regions as he deftly skips from one character to another. That he does so without jarring is a tribute to the way he melds movement and script. A turn, a new posture, a stroll to another part of the stage combined with the change of voice is all it takes to bring about the transformation. Both actors are helped in their portrayals by Ned Gibbon’s sound and lighting that aids the moods in this piece. In using intermittent piano music form only one composer, the sounds of Ryuichi Sakamoto enhance the unity of the play while providing both icy tones and soothing phrases as required.
The Final Journey of Edward Wilson could be seen as something of an academic play, as might be expected from a man who relishes research and has undertaken commissions for major galleries and museums. Indeed, reading the life of Wilson it is remarkable how many vivid details of his life are adeptly woven into this succinct yet informative play. Wilson’s official position on the ill-fated expedition of the Terra Nova was that of Chief of Scientific Staff, but Wilson’s talents were extensive. He had obtained a first in Natural Sciences at Cambridge and subsequently became a qualified physician. His passions lay in natural history, ornithology and painting, however. His contribution to the expedition was invaluable and his renowned attention to detail in his artwork is still admired today. Bassett captures this in scenes portraying Wilson’s admiration for Turner, his close observation of fleas and mosquitos and his ability to work in the most adverse of conditions.
Scott wrote, ‘Words must always fail me when I talk of Bill Wilson. I believe he really is the finest character I ever met’. Words have certainly not failed John Bassett in writing The Final Journey of Edward Wilson. His play and his performance along with that of Sam Rohwer together form an exceptional theatrical tribute to a legend of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.